12/16/2010 07:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Want a job with incoming NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman? Then you'd better study up on Charles Hamilton Houston!

Eric Schneiderman, who is poised to become New York State's next Attorney General in just a few short weeks, has been interviewing a lot of lawyers lately as he gears up to staff his new office.

In each interview, he asks the prospective job seeker to talk about the work of Charles Hamilton Houston.

These lawyers had better know that Houston was an African American lawyer whose lifelong commitment to social justice issues was instrumental in helping to dismantle the nation's Jim Crow laws. Houston, whose life and work are now the focus of Harvard University's Institute for Race & Justice, also trained a whole cadre of African American legal scholars, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Speaking in Manhattan Tuesday night in his first public appearance since he was elected Attorney General, Schneiderman paid tribute to Houston and said that he sees a strong parallel between his work as AG and the style of commitment that Houston exhibited.

Houston, who also served as Dean of Howard University Law School and Litigation Director for the NAACP, had a long-term game plan for how to dismantle Jim Crow laws, one that he wrote in the mid 1930s and which was executed over the next decades. Houston died in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education. Schneiderman emphasized that while Houston never lived to see his work come to fruition, he was nonetheless responsible for the important progress that came later. In effect, Houston's work set the stage for what became the Civil Rights era.

Schneiderman, who served as a state senator in New York for 12 years, has a long record of service as a public interest lawyer. He was speaking Tuesday night at the Citizen Action of New York's Progressive Leadership Awards Gala, which honored three activists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of social justice.

For years, Schneiderman was a volunteer community activist with Citizen Action. This activism was Schneiderman's principal political activity before he won his seat in the New York State Senate in 1998.

Citizen Action is a state-wide grassroots advocacy group fighting for social, racial economic and environmental justice issues.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my husband, activist Richard Kirsch, served as co-Director of Citizen Action of New York for 23 years before he left in 2007 to found Health Care for America Now, the national progressive coalition that was instrumental in helping to pass health care legislation in March of this year.

Richard was one of the three activists honored by Citizen Action at their Tuesday gala.

The other two individuals honored were Edwin (Eddie) Ellis, a political activist who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Ellis has been a leader in fighting to end prison-based gerrymandering; he is credited with helping to shift power "from prison communities back to communities of color, by requiring New York State to count people where they live, not where they are incarcerate, for the purposes of redistricting."

Also honored was United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, a Staten Island native who spent years working with at-risk students as a high school English teacher before beginning his work advocating on behalf of students and teachers for the union.

Harvard's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice was established in 2005 to pay homage to "one of the great civil rights lawyers of the twentieth century. Litigator, scholar and teacher, Charles Hamilton Houston dedicated his life to using the law as a tool to reverse the unjust consequences of racial discrimination." The Institute "is committed to marshaling the resources of Harvard and beyond to continue Houston's unfinished work."

Pictured above, from the left, Richard Kirsch; Attorney General Elect Eric Schneiderman; Edwin (Eddie) Ellis; Michael Mulgrew; and Karen Scharff, Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York.