While standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with more than 200,000 people outstretched before him, Dr. King communicated his dream of an inclusive and racially just society. Sunday, August 28, 2011 will mark forty-eight years since Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. On this date, many will witness the unveiling and dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. People around the world will reflect upon Dr. King’s life work which entailed championing equitable treatment and human rights, not just for African Americans, but for all who are plagued by injustice.
The Civil Rights Movement is widely-known as a defining time in history. African American attorneys have been in the vanguard of civil rights and legislative struggles for equality. They challenged the legal system to live up to its claim of equal justice for all. It is fitting, then, that we reflect upon Dr. King’s dream as it pertains to the current state of African Americans in the legal profession.
Joseph Hairston, a National Bar Association officer and Hall of Fame Inductee, shared his experience as a government lawyer in the 1960s. Joseph Hairston, former Executive Committee member of the National Bar Association, shed some light on what it was like to practice as a government lawyer in the 1960s. According to Census Data, in 1960 there were 2,180 African American attorneys out of a total of 285,933 lawyers. Mr. Hairston, who practiced taxation at a government agency in 1961, recalls there being two or three Black lawyers out of a total of 2,000 lawyers employed by the agency. Most other Black lawyers were relegated to private practice as sole practitioners, servicing other Black clients and Black owned businesses.
Although much accomplished in his career, Mr. Hairston seems most proud that he was able to increase the number of Black attorneys employed with the major government agency for which he worked. When he retired as Director of Operations, 10% of the attorneys were Black. Mr. Hairston joined the National Bar Association in 1961. At the time, he says, “the NBA was into civil rights matters and getting Black judges into the system”. Mr. Hairston is a firm believer that “the Judiciary should look like America”. Diversification of the federal bench has been and is currently still a priority for the National Bar Association.
Honorable Marcella Holland, Past Chair of the NBA Judicial Council, has championed judicial diversity; in her meeting with President Barack Obama, Judge Holland offered her insight regarding adding more African Americans to the judiciary.
As the Chair of the Judicial Council last year, I visited the White House twice and each time discussed with the President and his aides the absolute necessity of his continued fight for diversity on the federal bench. I urged him to be bolder in his support of minority candidates, especially African Americans. We are not fully represented in that arena yet and those who have been nominated go through a long, painstaking process, only to wait for months to get confirmation.
The underrepresentation of African American judges on the federal bench serves to highlight the future work which must be done to ensure Dr. King’s dream is a reality. In addition to the inadequacy of the diversity of the judiciary, the number of African American attorneys in the legal profession remains inadequate. According to a report issued by the American Bar Association titled “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps”, the legal profession is less racially diverse than most other professions. In the year 2000, the legal profession remained 90% Caucasian, with the national population being about 70% Caucasian.
When asked whether Dr. King’s vision has come to fruition, Judge Marcella Holland echoes the report findings.
I believe that MLK's dream of full inclusion has not come to full fruition in the legal profession. Individual African American lawyers have made great strides, however, the numbers are still low compared to our percentage of the population. The number of African American lawyers in corporate America is discouraging. Their retention numbers are not high and they move from company to company more frequently than their White counterparts. I think the NBA has done much in its history to help remove the stereotype of the African American lawyer and change the landscape of corporate America, but we have much more work to be done in that arena.
As the nation's oldest and largest national association of predominately African-American lawyers and judges, the National Bar Association is positioned to play an integral role in advancing equal access and inclusion of African American legal professionals. Though there have been many strides made since the Civil Rights movement, the fight for full-inclusion and equality is an ongoing process. Daryl D. Parks, President of the National Bar Association, takes the stance that there is still much work to be done in diversifying the judiciary. He states, “Dr. King’s dream has not come to full fruition. In many places in this country, the Black community continues to be disproportionately represented on judiciary”. Thus, as we near the day of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dedication, let us all reflect upon the institutional, organizational, and individual approaches we can take to bring Dr. King’s dream to fruition.