Judge Miles Lord: Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keeper

There was once a generation of young Minnesotans who, imbued with a social-gospel populism, set out to make their state, their nation, and their world a better place for all. Especially in today’s times, the legacy of these men so dedicated to the common good—and who loomed so large on the national scene—is well worth remembrance.


They were a remarkable crew with strikingly similar backgrounds: growing up poor in small towns, forged by the Great Depression and hard work, and embracing a commitment to the least fortunate. “The moral test of a government,” as Hubert Humphrey would say, “is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

Hubert Horatio Humphrey was the leader of these coming-of-age young men who banded together in the 1940s, when he was first campaigning for mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey was initially little known, but he transfixed students and other young volunteers—who became known as “the diaper brigade”—with his message that, together, they could create a better world.

“He inspired us and taught us,” Miles Lord would say, “and bent us like tender willows in a nursery.”

Lord, a college student at the time, was among the youngest of the group. From his threadbare beginnings on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, he would go on to become a one-of-a-kind maverick on the federal bench, a judge who believed that the deck was stacked in favor of the rich and powerful and who set out to balance the scales of justice for “the little guy.”

Others among this group included Walter Mondale, who would become widely credited for redefining the vice presidency, and Orville Freeman, who would initiate the federal food stamp and school breakfast programs for the poor while serving in the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets. And there was also Eugene McCarthy, who got his start organizing for Humphrey and first ran for Congress in 1948, borrowing a ramshackle Chevy from Hubert as a campaign sound truck.

In this era, Minnesota bred public servants with and extraordinary devotion to the common good.

In 1964, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were the two final contenders for LBJ’s vice presidency, and they appeared back-to-back on Meet the Press. “Senator, it strikes some of us that you have an embarrassment of riches in Minnesota,” one of the panelists said. “How do you account for this? What is there about Minnesota?”

What there was about Minnesota was that, in this era, the state bred public servants with an extraordinary devotion to the common good. For Miles Lord, that began when he was a young boy growing up in one of the poorest families on the Iron Range. During those years, he was deeply moved by the sermons in church. He listened to the story of Cain and Abel and envisioned the two brothers on the Range, with Cain pushing Abel into an iron ore pit that Abel could not escape. “I never wanted to repeat Cain’s mistake and have God ask me about it,” he would later say.

As with others in Humphrey’s following, Miles Lord’s life was forever changed when their paths crossed. Humphrey led by example, including when, still early in his career, he rocketed to fame at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with his call for an unyielding commitment to civil rights. (“The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”) Later, the Washington Post would call Humphrey, as a senator, “the idea factory for many of the Kennedy administration bills.” The Peace Corps, in fact, was a Humphrey idea. And, of course, Humphrey was at the helm of the effort that broke the historic Senate filibuster on the way to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But the year 1968 brought a sharp schism between Humphrey and his one-time disciple Eugene McCarthy. Humphrey, as the sitting vice president and later presidential candidate, had become beholden to LBJ and the escalating war in Vietnam, while McCarthy embarked on a quixotic mission to rally the antiwar movement with his own campaign for the presidency. (Miles Lord, caught between his two friends, designated himself as the “unofficial envoy” between the two candidates.) Later, Humphrey would put much of the blame for his loss on himself. “I had lost some of my personal identity and personal forcefulness,” he would say. And McCarthy, despite the bitterness of 1968, would come to call Humphrey’s loss “just short of tragedy.”

Miles Lord is too little remembered today, despite all the trails he broke.

Indeed, Humphrey became a “forgotten man,” as one historian would lament in the New York Times. “Poor Humphrey could never catch a break,” he wrote. “That such a figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad.”

Miles Lord is also too little remembered today, despite all the trails he broke. During his years on the bench, from 1966 to 1985, he fought battles aplenty on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged, and, as he would say, “the meek,” and his bold rulings—holding big corporations accountable, protecting the environment, standing up for consumers, defending the rights of women, and weighing in on issues ranging from disability rights to education reform to nuclear disarmament—reshaped jurisprudence for decades to come.

“I happen to believe that might does not make right,” he used to say. “I believe that the poor are blessed and we have a duty to help them.”

If Judge Lord were on the bench today, there is no doubt his voice would be heard. Among other things, he would be speaking out against big corporations that abuse the public trust. “Many people denounce crime in the street,” he used to say, “but few examine crime in the skyscraper.” He would also be singing the praises of immigrants; he never forgot his years on the Iron Range, growing up surrounded by hardworking immigrants from dozens of countries, and, once on the bench, nothing brought Judge Lord more joy than swearing in new citizens. (After the standard Oath of Allegiance, he would give an improvised oath more to his liking about the need to be “our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.”)

There is also no doubt that, if he were alive today, Miles Lord would be urging us all to heed better selves. And he would be quoting his favorite poem, which he often used to exhort his audiences to reach out to their brothers and sisters—and to the extended family of man—who were in need of help:

I am only one,

But I still am one.

I cannot do everything,

But I can do something;

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

“That applies to me,” he said. “And, my friends, it applies to you.”

Learn more in my book Miles Lord: The Maverick Who Brought Corporate America to Justice.

The documentary Miles Lord: Minnesota’s Maverick Judge is a co-production of Twin Cities PBS/TPT Partnerships and the University of Minnesota Press, with funding provided by Ciresi Conlin LLP, and can be seen in Minnesota on PBS stations and streaming at tpt.org beginning November 19, 2017. Here’s a trailer.