5 Great African-American Lawyers in History
Throughout our history, African-American individuals have been some of the most revolutionary and impactful legal advocates, shaping the legal landscape as we know it today. In honor of Black History Month, we take a look at five great African-Americans who have made significant contributions to law today.
Perhaps the best known African-American lawyer in the modern era is Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Cochran was a Los Angeles-based attorney who was widely renowned for his long list of high-profile and A-list celebrity clients, including Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Jim Brown, Snoop Dogg, and Marian Jones.
Cochran is perhaps best known for leading the “Dream Team” of lawyers that defended and subsequently earned the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, who stood accused of murdering his wife and best friend Ron Goldman. During the closing arguments of the trial, Cochran spoke the now-famous phrase “If it does not fit, you must acquit.”
Thurgood Marshall is the 96th Supreme Court Justice of the United States, and the first African-American to hold the title. His legal career was one of dazzling success, earning decisions on nearly every level, as well as his activism against institutionalized racism and segregation in public spaces.
Marshall served as Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, winning multiple Supreme Court cases. Perhaps none are more famous than his victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, which overturned the “separate but equal” statute in public education established in Plessy v. Ferguson. He was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson to replace Justice Tom C. Clark, and took the Associate Justice office in 1967. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 84, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington D.C.
Upon the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas as his replacement, where he still serves today. Thomas’s history is also one of activism, serving under President Ronald Regan as the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas became a federal judge in 1989 upon nomination to a seat in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Bush. In 1991, Bush then nominated him to replace Thurgood Marshall, after having him on the shortlist just a year prior to replace Justice William Brennan. Today, Thomas is known as one of the most conservative-leaning members of the Supreme Court, frequently voting in favor of First Amendment, Second Amendment, and Fourth Amendment issues.
Constance Baker Motley broke the figurative glass ceiling in multiple ways, becoming the first African-American woman to hold a federal judiciary position after being appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She also served as an associate council to Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, for which she wrote the original complaint.
Baker became the first female attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While in this position, she became the first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, when she argued that James Meredith should be the first black student allowed to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. She won the case. She also won a 1978 case that argued a female reporter should be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room after a game, a landmark decision for women in sports broadcasting.
George Washington Williams
George Washington Williams was an influential figure in correcting the civil injustices being perpetrated by the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State. After fighting in the Union Army in the American Civil War, Williams went to Howard University in Washington D.C., then transferred to Newton Theological Institution near Boston, where he became a pastor. Williams then studied law under Alphonso Taft (father of President Willliam H. Taft) and became a lawyer, becoming the first African-American elected to the Ohio State Legislature.
After his numerous accomplishments, he was granted an in formal audience with the King of Belgium, and visited the Congo Free State on his own accord, despite the King’s objections. It was there he witnessed the injustices and brutalities being committed in the King’s name, and wrote the famous “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo.” This letter condemned the inhumane treatment of the Congolese people.
Unfortunately, Williams died in Blackpool, England in 1891, on his return trip from Africa.
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