In the past year, I have been asked many times to reflect and comment and commiserate on the state of our country. Each time, as I recount my own experience, I try to stress how important it is that when we doubt or disagree with our leaders we are not governed by them. We are governed by laws. When those we elect seek to subvert norms of behavior, we have rights and laws to fall back on. And, when elected officials seek to subvert the rights and laws of this country, we have lawyers, judges, and courts to fall back on. That has been our history and our journey as a nation, and it has been my journey as well.
At times like these, we need to be reminded of that journey, because, though so much of what we are experiencing today is “not normal,” it is also not new. Our situation may feel unprecedented and our course may feel uncharted, but we have been here before. I am reminded of my earliest exposure to American politics, growing up in Atlanta. In the early 1940s, there was a gubernatorial race in Georgia, where Eugene Talmadge, the governor at the time, was running for reëlection. I recall sitting in our apartment in the first public-housing project built for black people in America, and Governor Talmadge coming on WSB radio, describing the two planks of his platform, which, as I recall them, were “niggers” and “roads.” As I recall, he was against the first and for the second.
This is essentially what President Trump is saying now—except that his two planks are immigrants and jobs. He’s against the first, and claims to be for the second. The words may change, but the policy remains the same. We have been here before. When executive orders bar people from our shores based on what they look like or how they worship, it is hard not to hear echoes of Strom Thurmond on the campaign trail in 1948, insisting that even the Army could not force integration, or the cry of George Wallace in 1963, declaring, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” When we hear the President talk about “law and order,” or the Attorney General exaggerate urban crime rates or talk about “filth,” it is hard not to hear the growl of Richard Nixon, who used those same dog whistles. Some may call this a regression. But it may also be called the most overt recent iteration of the oppression we have long endured.
Indeed, because we have been here before we know that we will endure. When our ancestors were taken from their homes and shipped across the sea, bought and sold and bound with the chains of slavery, we endured. When the framers of the Constitution decided we were each three-fifths of a person, we endured. When the Dred Scott decision stated that a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect, we endured. And after the Civil War, after the Union was broken and put back together, after slavery dissolved and victory declared, when so many thought that the war’s conclusion meant the battle’s end, we endured. We endured the “black codes” of Reconstruction. We endured when the Supreme Court said, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that segregation was legal, that “separate” was fine as long as it was “equal.” We endured poll taxes at the voting booth and burned crosses in the churchyard. We endured dogs and fire hoses as we marched in Birmingham. And our history of endurance should give us faith that we shall once again endure.
But our journey also teaches us that endurance is not enough. We do not sing “We shall endure.” We sing “We shall overcome.” I am of the belief that in order to change a nation you must of course change hearts and minds, but you must also change the laws. And to change the laws you need good lawyers. Or, to put it in more lawyerly terms, “Yes, the meek may inherit the earth, but you’re going to need a lawyer to probate the will.” Lawyers were the backbone of the civil-rights movement—starting with the dean of Howard University Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston. When I was a student at Howard University Law School, I sat in the moot-court room and watched in awe as he and other giants of the movement—legends like Constance Baker Motley, William Bryant, Robert Carter, Julius Chambers, William T. Coleman, Jack Greenberg, Oliver Hill, Elaine Jones, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Ming, and James Nabrit—prepared their arguments for the Supreme Court. At breaks during their dry runs, as they huddled together, my classmates and I would stand close by, just to hear what they were saying. Standing in proximity to them was part of our education and my inspiration.
Lawyers across the country—like Wiley Branton in Arkansas, Chambers in North Carolina, Vernon Crawford in Alabama, Don Hollowell in Georgia, and Avon Williams in Tennessee—all contributed to the movement. Just eight weeks after my graduation from Howard Law School, I travelled with Hollowell to a small town in rural Georgia called Reidsville. We were there representing an eighteen-year-old black man who had been arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair, all in the space of forty-eight hours. The proceedings were held in the segregated courthouse of Tatnall County. Hollowell, C. B. King, and I slept in the nearest colored motel, thirty miles away. Every day, we would appear in court and plead our client’s case. Every day at lunch, the white lawyers and court officials—everyone but us—would go across the square to the whites-only café. And the three black lawyers would go to the local grocery store for sliced baloney, a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, and a Coca-Cola, which we would eat in our car, parked in the courthouse square.
On the third day of the trial, a black woman sitting in the “colored” section, upstairs, dropped a book to get my attention. She beckoned me to the lobby, and when I met her there she whispered, “We been watching you lawyers eat baloney sandwiches for two days now. Don’t eat today. After court, come to my home for lunch.” She gave me directions. When we arrived, we saw a table set for royalty: her best silver, china, and crystal, a lace tablecloth, beautifully folded white-cloth napkins, and the most exquisite Southern cuisine I had ever eaten. Some ten black women and their husbands joined hands with us for grace. I shall never forget one sentence in that prayer: “Lord, way down here in Tatnall county, we can’t join the N.A.A.C.P., but thanks to your bountiful blessings, we can feed the N.A.A.C.P. lawyers.”
The laws that defined and circumscribed life in the Jim Crow South were warped, but it was also the law—farsighted, fair-minded jurisprudence—that gave us the tools to dismantle segregation, piece by rotten piece. And it has been lawyers who have bent that arc of the universe toward justice. The law continues to hold this extraordinary power to remake itself—to correct injustice and further justice. It is clear that, in our current fight, lawyers must continue to lead the charge. The nineteenth-century English reformer Lord Brougham spoke of the law in terms that have relevance to our day and our time. “It was the boast of Augustus,” he said, “that he found Rome of brick and left it marble; a praise not unworthy a great prince. . . . But how much nobler will be our sovereign’s boast when he shall have it to say, that he found law dear, and left it cheap; found it a sealed book—left it a living letter; found it the patrimony of the rich—left it the inheritance of the poor; found it the two-edged sword of craft and oppression—left it the staff of honesty and the shield of innocence.”
Adapted from the author’s remarks upon receiving the History of Black Lawyers Award for Global Leadership, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on June 5th.