Black Lawyers Look Back, Forward at Justice

By Ron Harris | 8/1/2014, 7:48 p.m.
It was a seven days of recalling the legal struggle for civil rights and calling for more civil rights action ...
NBA President Patricia Rosier

It was a seven days of recalling the legal struggle for civil rights and calling for more civil rights action today. It was a week’s worth of legal education, evaluation and exploration, of awards for the legal legends and the new stars of litigation, of personal soul searching, of socializing, networking and even some downright partying.

And there was also the presentation of and praise for the $23.6 billion man.

All that and more happened this week as more than 1,000 of the nation’s top African American attorneys gathered in downtown Atlanta Marriott Marquis for the 89th annual convention of the National Bar Association (NBA).

During the convention, numerous attorneys and judges were honored for their service, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Judge Clarence Cooper, senior judge on the District Court Northern District of Georgia.

Attorneys and experts gathered in scores of workshops and panel discussions as they grappled with dozens of subjects, including sex trafficking, understanding and maneuvering through international law, immigration, health care, labor and employment, taxes, the environment, the military, family issues, immigration and entertainment and sports.

Police profiling took center stage, just a little more than a week after the strangulation death of an unarmed African-American man by New York City policemen.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of Rainbow Push Coalition; the Rev. Al Sharpton, leader of National Action Network, and Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, led the panel that discussed the issue, which included attorney Tanya M. Washington, an associate professor at George State University School of Law, and Donald M. Jones, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

America is “facing racial profiling that costs lives,” Sharpton said, and challenged the attorneys gathered in the conference room to “choose what kind of lawyer you want to be.

“Do you want to be (first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall and break the shackles, or do you want to be (current black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas and put the shackles on.”

Ifill challenged the lawyers to do more to help in the fight to expand civil rights and to thwart efforts to reverse them.

“A lot of you wouldn’t be here without Brown vs. the Board of Education,” she said, alluding to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling won by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that killed “separate but equal” education and paved the wave for the integration of the nation’s school systems nationwide. “And a lot of you wouldn’t be here as elected officials without the Voting Rights Act.

She then implored the lawyers to use their legal degrees and experience to work on civil rights cases that are important to all Americans.

“You must become a partner with me with this work,” she said. “When I call on you, I need you to give me some hours. Everybody should be engaged in civil rights work.”

Jackson also reminded the lawyers of their legacy and their obligation to go beyond themselves and their personal careers and ambitions for the greater good.