11 Black Americans Who Made — and Are Making — an Impact on the Law
Note: This post was updated on January 29, 2021.
February is Black History Month, and it's the perfect time to reflect on the Black community's impact on the nation's legal landscape. It is a history that predates the founding of the nation and continues to shape our future.
While there is no way to highlight every contribution to the American legal system, we will highlight some of the most prominent Black voices who have had an especially pronounced impact.
1. Macon Bolling Allen
Largely cited as the first Black lawyer in the United States, Macon Allen passed the Maine bar exam in 1844 and became a justice of the peace for Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in 1848, before he was even considered a U.S. citizen. Allen went on to open a law office in Charleston, South Carolina, after the Civil War. After Reconstruction, Allen moved to Washington, D.C., working as an attorney in 1873 for the Land and Improvement Association.
2. Charlotte E. Ray
Ray was the first Black female lawyer in American history. In 1872, she became the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, the first woman to graduate from Howard University School of Law, and the first woman to be admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. Despite being recognized as "one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country" at the time, her independent law practice struggled to find clients willing to entrust their cases to a Black woman.
3. Charles Hamilton Houston
"The Man Who Killed Jim Crow" was also the man who mentored a generation of Black attorneys, like Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill. Charles H. Houston, the son of a lawyer, joined the U.S. Army in 1917 when it was still segregated, and that experience was transformative for his legal career. "The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them," Houston said. "I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back."
Houston served as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is perhaps most famous for his attacks on the "separate but equal doctrine" from Plessy v. Ferguson, demonstrating the inherent inequality of segregation.
4. Thurgood Marshall
Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court justice, serving 24 years on the bench from 1967 to 1991. Marshall went to college with poet Langston Hughes and musician Cab Calloway, then graduated first in his class from Howard University School of Law, where Charles Hamilton Houston was then the dean. He founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing several civil rights cases in the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.
On the Court, Marshall was a diligent defender of individual rights, once describing his legal philosophy: "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up." Marshall also mentored current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
5. Johnnie Cochran
Yes, he got O.J. acquitted. But Cochran's other most famous case was a continuation of protecting Black people in Los Angeles from police brutality and abuse. After graduating from Loyola Law School in 1962 and working briefly as a city attorney in L.A.'s criminal division, Cochran's first big case for his own firm was representing a Black widow who sued several police officers who had shot and killed her husband, Leonard Deadwyler. Though he ultimately lost the case, Cochran wrote in "The American Lawyer":
"[T]hose were extremely difficult cases to win in those days. But what Deadwyler confirmed for me was that this issue of police abuse really galvanized the minority community. It taught me that these cases could really get attention."
As Cochran was fond of saying, he worked "not only for the OJs, but also the No Js."
6. Anita Hill
While Hill might best be known for her confirmation hearing testimony regarding sexual harassment by future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, we cannot ignore her other contributions to the law.
Hill worked in the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She published an autobiography, "Speaking Truth to Power," and another book about the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis on Black homeowners called "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home." And although there was no #MeToo movement at the time, harassment complaints filed with the EEOC went up 50% after her testimony against Thomas. Congress also passed a bill that gave harassment victims the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay, and reinstatement.
Hill continues to teach social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University. She was recently asked to lead the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.
7. Clarence Thomas
Despite Hill's testimony, it is hard to deny the important role that Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas continues to play in American law. First serving as an assistant attorney general in Missouri, Thomas would go on to serve as an assistant secretary of education, the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. When Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, he cemented his place as the country's most important Black originalist and conservative legal mind.
Noted for his silence during oral arguments, Thomas has staked out a reputation as a judge unafraid to stake out an arch-conservative position in dissent regarding rulings on abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, and other hot-button social issues. While earning the ire of liberals and civil rights activists, Thomas wrote that he "struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a Black man of not caring about civil rights."
8. Barack Obama
The first Black president of the United States was also the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, so Obama was breaking barriers before he even left law school. After graduation, Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years while also working on civil rights litigation for a Chicago law firm. After 11 years as an Illinois and U.S. Senator, Obama won the presidency in 2008. He signed several bills and executive orders during his two terms, advancing race, gender, and LGBTQ equality. His most significant legislative achievement, however, was passing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. What we know today as "Obamacare" provided healthcare to an estimated 20 million people who were previously uninsured.
9. Michele Roberts
Already a well-established trial lawyer in Washington, D.C., Roberts broke ground in 2014 with her hiring as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, becoming the first woman to lead a major professional sports union in the U.S. Roberts led the NBPA through a period of unprecedented prosperity. She announced plans to step down in early 2020 but has since stayed on and played a vital role in helping the league through the pandemic and summer of racial justice protests. Roberts has used her position to force the NBA to become a leader in promoting racial justice causes, using arenas for early voting, and supporting Black players who want to use their celebrity to speak out.
10. Kamala Harris
Harris broke ground in January 2021 as the nation's first female, Black, and Asian vice president. After graduating from the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Harris was a deputy district attorney in Alameda County before moving on to San Francisco, where she was elected DA in 2002. In 2010, she was elected attorney general of California, where she served until being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. Before running for president in 2020, Harris national notoriety for her prosecutorial style of questioning Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Only 56, a relatively young age in politics, Harris is likely to seek to be the country's first female president again.
11. Lawyers of the Black Lives Matter Movement
It would be impossible to single out one lawyer, and it would be impossible to overstate the importance of the work this group is doing for the racial and criminal justice reform movement. Protesters faced arrest and caught-on-camera police violence during a turbulent 2020. And these lawyers — like the group Law 4 Black Lives — are on the ground providing vital representation in civil and criminal matters while also organizing and advocating for change to eliminate police violence and disparities in the criminal justice system.
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