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Nelson Diaz endows the first law chair for Latino Civil Rights

With money on the mind this week, mayoral candidate Judge Nelson Diaz took the focus off of campaign finances by announcing the creation of Pennsylvania’s…

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With money on the mind this week, Judge Nelson Diaz took the focus off of campaign finances by announcing the creation of Pennsylvania’s first endowed law chair in Latino Civil Rights. He presented a $450,000 check to Temple University yesterday afternoon, which will be used to set up a multi-million endowment over the course of his lifetime.

Students from Temple’s Beasley School of Law attended the ceremony. In his speech, Diaz reflected on the difficulties he faced as a young Latino man at the law school, especially as he tried to start the first Latino law group. He joked that, at first, he couldn’t even start a Latino group because there would only two members — himself and the mirror.

“In my life, I’ve tried to break and open doors, but also be appreciative of those doors that were opened for me by prior giants,” he said.

Those priors giants were African-American civil rights lawyers like Leon Higgonbotham and Clifford Scott Green. It was Peter Liacouras who first convinced Diaz to come to Temple Law School. After his arrival in Philadelphia, Diaz fondly recalls Cecil B. Moore asking him “What the heck are you doing here with the Black law students?”

He laughs at the memory that seems so self-evident now: It was what these African-American lawyers were doing for their communities that Diaz is in turn doing for Latinos in Philadelphia.

Diaz ended up co-founding the Black Law Students Association as well as the Temple Legal Aid Society with Ernie Jones, a model for pro-bono legal work that has been copied at law schools around the country. As a practicing lawyer, he sued the Civil Service Commission because the tests discriminated against Latinos. In the 1970s, he fought to make voting booths multilingual so that immigrants and non-English speakers could elect officials in all of their native languages — not just Spanish.

“The greatest civil rights issue in our community is education,” Diaz told AL DÍA. “It takes a struggle in the courts to enforce your rights. You don’t just sit back and let it happen.”

Establishing the Latino Civil Rights chair, the first in the state, is a major landmark for both Diaz’s career and for Pennsylvania as a whole.

The $450,000 is part one of the prcoess. Exelon has made a charitable gift in Diaz’s name to help him foot the $1.5 million total cost of establishing the chair at Temple, after which Diaz has committed to raising an additional $2 million throughout his lifetime to ensure that the scholarships will continue.

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