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African Americans in the Law

African Americans in the Law

October 12, 2020

This October, Fletchers Solicitors is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting influential Black people who have helped shape the world we live in today. We’ve assigned a cross-departmental team across all specialisms at Fletchers, so that we can do our own research and continually educate ourselves on Black history.

The second blog in this series is a piece researched and written by Anthony Grogan, Assistant Litigation Executive.

The significant role of Black lawyers in the American Civil Rights Movement

This article covers more international aspects of Black History – namely, the significant role of Black lawyers in the American Civil Rights Movement, in both the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Prior to the involvement of African Americans into the hierarchy of the US Justice System, the law in America was inconsistent with the ideals set forward in the Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation. Looking at the case law of the Supreme Court prior to 1954, one can even argue that the highest judges in the land demeaned the rights of African Americans rather than secured them. Cases such as The United States of America v. Cruickshank and The United States of America v. Reece reversed criminal convictions for the civil rights violations and preserved the right of states to impose voting qualifications – the latter something Martin Luther King would fight against in Selma, 89 years later.

However, perhaps the most damning judgment was the verdict of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, a case which introduced ‘de jure’ segregation by ruling the legality of the Jim Crow laws as ‘a matter for the states’ and something which did not require federal intervention. The notorious ‘separate, but equal’ verdict was passed with only one Justice, John Marshall Harlan, in dissent.

A radical change in the federal study of law

Fast forward 58 years to 1954, we see a radical change in federal jurisprudence. The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka most famously represented this, with a unanimous vote in favour of the plaintiffs whose children had been denied admission to all-white schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren would write that “in the field of public education… the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

The first African American in the Supreme Court

What had changed was the increasing influence of Civil Rights activism within both higher and lower division courts. Prior to his victory in Brown, Chief Plaintiff Representative Thurgood Marshall had found success working with the NAACP Legal Defence and Education Fund in the 1950 cases of Sweat v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education. Following Brown, his talents would go recognised by the highest officials in the country – President Kennedy appointing him judgeship in the US Court of Appeals, and President Johnson in 1967 nominating him to be the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Into the 21st Century, African American lawyers continue to play a central part in national decision making. Carol Moseley Braun, graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, would become the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 and Eric Holder would become the first Black Attorney General of the United States in 2009. President Barack Obama, little known for his legal achievements, would graduate Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School in 1991 – in the process becoming the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review in the University’s 354-year history. He would then go on to teach Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, as well as act as an associate for Civil Rights Litigation firm Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland.

Going forward, when appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and asked if he would nominate President Obama to the Supreme Court, Presidential nominee Joe Biden replied ‘Well… he’s fully qualified.’

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