When attorney Philip Hirschkop speaks at the Virginia Beach Forum on Monday night, he will, of course, discuss his role in the landmark Loving v. Virginia court case.
It was 50 years ago that Hirschkop served as co-counsel to the case that wiped out the last state laws in the country banning interracial marriage .
The case of Mildred and Richard Loving was the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie last year; people most often associate Hirschkop with the legal battle.
But the Loving case was a blip in Hirschkop’s lengthy career. He built a national reputation for fighting for anti-Vietnam War and civil rights demonstrators, getting women admitted to the University of Virginia and other state colleges and protecting animal rights through his work with Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
During his talk Monday, he’ll discuss what he believes is most important about his job.
“How to use the law to achieve a social good,” he said during a phone interview from his Lorton home.
The New York native fell into his social justice work. After a brief stint in the Army, he got degrees in liberal arts and mechanical engineering in the early 1960s.
“I was supposedly brilliant in mathematics,” he said.
But engineering didn’t excite him. Someone suggested that he take exams for law school. He scored so well that he thought he would give law a try.
Hirschkop worked in a Washington patent office while attending Georgetown University law school. At the end of his second year in 1963, he was invited to a party by a law professor. It was shortly after Ku Klux Klan members in Birmingham, Ala., bombed a church. The explosion killed four girls.
At the party, a civil rights attorney asked Hirschkop if he wanted to tag along to Danville, where civil rights demonstrators were being arrested and beaten, one of the worst in the south at the time, Hirschkop said.
Hirschkop went. One of the women described the crowds being funneled into an alley and being hit by police with night sticks and high-pressure water hoses. She said it was like “trash being swept down a gutter after a heavy rain.”
He returned to Georgetown knowing what he wanted to do.
Hirschkop formed the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council. After graduating in 1964, he set up a practice in Virginia and started traveling throughout the south, supervising law students. The students were active in voter registration cases and investigating the famous “Mississippi Burning” case in which three civil rights workers went missing and were later found dead.
Hirschkop was visiting a law professor at Georgetown that year when another young attorney dropped by to talk with the instructor. The attorney was Bernard Cohen who was working a Virginia case. The Lovings, a white man and his black bride, had married in Washington, in 1958 because Virginia law prohibited them from marrying.
They returned to their home in Caroline County and were arrested, found guilty, and banned from living in the state. Cohen asked for Hirschkop’s help. The case dragged on but there was no trial and only a few appearances before judges.
“It was really about writing three briefs,” Hirschkop said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 in favor of the Lovings and the case became history.
Hirschkop helped found the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia in 1969 and worked on prison reform and teachers’ rights, including a 1971 Lynchburg case that ended discriminatory practices against pregnant teachers.
Hirschkop started working with PETA when it formed in 1980. The PETA Foundation named its legal department after Hirschkop last year.
At 81, he still works with PETA but doesn’t take other clients. He will accept a few speaking engagements to talk about what he loves. On Tuesday, he will speak to a group of public defenders in Portsmouth.
“People have asked what it’s like when you win a really big case,” Hirschkop said. “But the best moment is the next morning, when you’re shaving and you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You did good.’ “