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The Negro Lawyer; His Opportunity His Duty


Of the Baltimore Bar

[Note 52: An address at the opening of Howard University Law School,
Washington, D. C., Oct. 1st, 1913.]


The legal profession is without doubt in the lead. Its devotees outrank
all others in service to the government and they come the closest in
personal contact to the individual. This is denied of course, and always
will be denied by men of all other professions, but when the roster of
the world's lawyers who have faithfully and efficiently served humanity
in every conceivable way is pitted against that of the others, the
question is relieved of all doubt. The Negro lawyer is no longer an
experiment. He has been severely tried from within and without, and he
has proved his worth. His place in our economy is fixed. He has
demonstrated his capacity to serve, and to serve well, and for all of
this both the lawyer and the race he is helping to advance are under
lasting obligations to Howard University. She has to her credit more men
who are actively and successfully pursuing their calling than any other
institution of learning in this land.

* * * * *

The Negro race is probably to-day in greater need of consecrated lawyers
than it is of pious priests. The time has come for the lawyer to take
his place in the lead. We are celebrating this year the 50th anniversary
of our emancipation, and, paradoxical though it may be, we appear
further from emancipation to-day than when Lincoln signed his
Emancipation Proclamation, or when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It is
quite true that we have an immensely larger realty-holding to our
credit, that our financial worth is constantly on the increase, that our
illiteracy is rapidly reaching the vanishing-point, and that in all
matters, spiritual as well as temporal, we seem to have improved, but
the closer we approximate the standard of life and living of the
dominant race, all the harder apparently have we to fight to maintain
our self-respect, and preserve the rights and privileges which the
letter of our American law guarantees. When we were slaves and had
nothing except our muscles, there was no thought of separate-car laws.
When we were ignorant and powerless to think coherently, there were no
efforts at our disfranchisement. When we were poverty-stricken and
satisfied if we might live in the alleys of our great American cities,
there was no thought of segregation, whether in the matter of our
residences, or in that of the employees of our much-heralded republican
government. With every increase in accomplishment, or worth, or demand
for the better things of life, comes the burden of wrongs, injustice,
and rash discrimination. It would be idle here to attempt to recount in
detail the grievances we justly have against the government in city,
state and nation; to do so further than the purpose I have in view would
be but to tell you what you full well know. The Negro race needs a
change of viewpoint; another leadership is an absolute necessity, and I
see no reason why men of our profession should not attain it. For years
we have had in the ascendency the prophets of submission and silence,
and we have been taught to declare for peace when we knew there was no
peace. No other element in our great nation, except that of ourselves is
content with things as they are, accepting without protest every new
injustice, in the vain hope that some day would bring about a change for
the better. We have lulled ourselves to sleep with this fatalism, and
what is the result? We have noted the practical nullification of every
act suggested or inspired by the changing conditions in the lives and
property of freedmen brought about by the Civil War. Disfranchisement in
every Southern State is as fixed and determinate, as the indifference of
the Negroes of those sections, or the practises of all political parties
can make it. Separate, and therefore inferior, accommodations on public
conveyances are the rule, and we have endured these conditions so long
that it would appear almost cruel now to undertake, or to ask a change.
We have noted further, and this is the saddest of all, that our
inactivity in claiming our rights, or our indifference about their
recognition, has not only emboldened our enemies, but it has silenced
our friends.

We have seen with increasing alarm the judicial construction of statutes
and the Constitution itself, which all but vitiate and annul the basis
of our citizenship; we have seen repeated attempts made to discredit the
War amendments to the national Constitution, and some have in all
seriousness gone so far even as to question their constitutionality.
Every student of our common law has always been sure of the right to
private property, and the corollaries thereto, but it is just in the
present year that a court of last resort in a neighboring State, in an
interpretation of one of these new conceptions, a segregation ordinance,
declared that while the one under investigation was invalid, that the
municipality enacting it might under its police powers make provision
for the segregation of the races in the matter of their residences,
schools, churches, and places of public assembly. The law is not a fixed
science; it is more properly growth, a development. What is not regarded
as law to-day may, by the inactivity or indifference of those most
deeply concerned, become the law of the next decade. So we behold to-day
our rights and liberties drifting away from us, and that regarded as the
law which years ago we deemed impossible. What are we to do, you say?
What can we do? The lawyers trained here and in other institutions of
learning must answer these questions, and in finding their answers will
be their opportunity. The adjudication of the conflicting interests of
mankind, the interpretation of our statutes and our common law the
determination of rights and privileges of all men, is a judicial
function. What rights we enjoy to-day have come in the final analysis
from the courts. What rights we find ourselves to-day deprived of, and
which we hope to enjoy to-morrow, must come, if at all, from the same
source. The courts have the last word, and it is to that instrument of
government we must appeal, and to that last word we must look for our
safety, or fear our doom. But courts are not self-acting institutions,
and they are not engaged in academic discussions of abstractions. They
are severely serious. It may be that, like so many Americans, we have
lost faith in the courts, and Heaven knows we have had abundant reason
for so doing, but there's hope. They have too often and too long
listened to the clamors of public opinion, put too much faith and credit
in the utterances of latter-day journalism, coloring their opinions to
suit the one, or to escape the criticism of the other. Under the
pernicious doctrine of public policy and in fortifying that undefined
and indefinable legal notion of police power, courts have wiped aside
Constitutional limitations, and disregarded what the profession at least
had learned to consider as almost fixed precedents of the law, but even
with all these defects admitted, there remains the startling truth that
to these governmental agencies we must look for the righting of our
wrongs and the redress of our grievances. We have shunned the courts too
often in our temporal affairs, fearing, it seems, further adverse
decisions, or waiting a proper adjustment at some other forum. In my own
State it might now be compulsory upon you, or any other decent
self-respecting person of the race, in travelling from here to New York
or elsewhere in the North, to ride in the so-called "Jim-Crow" cars
provided by an indulgent Maryland legislature for Negro patrons of its
railroads, had it not have been for a member of the Faculty of this
institution. William H. H. Hart knew that legislation of that character
was an attempt to restrict interstate traffic, and the Court of Appeals
of Maryland agreed with him. The case of State vs. Hart, reported in 100
Md. at page 595, is a landmark in our Maryland law, and under its
influence "Jim-Crow" cars have almost disappeared from the railroads of
our State. Another distinguished member of the Faculty of Howard
University, but of another department, in travelling over the railroads
in the eastern part of our State last fall, discovered that the
compartments provided by the roads for their colored passengers, in
point of cleanliness, appointment, and convenience, were notably
inferior to those furnished others. He complained to the Public Service
Commission and, after a full hearing, the Commission passed a decree
requiring these railroads to furnish accommodations to its colored
passengers equal in all respects to that furnished others. This is
exactly what the Separate-Car Law provides, but it is exactly what the
railroads had never intended to furnish and, without the complaint of
Professor T. W. Turner, no other course would have been followed. Here
are two, and there are numerous other concrete examples of what may be
accomplished by sane and timely appeals to our judicial tribunals. Our
government has three well defined departments separate and distinct,
each operating in a manner as a check on the other, and all together
working for the common good of the whole. We have resorted generally to
the executive and have been satisfied with its appointment of a few men
to office, and with its passive execution of the laws affecting us. In
recent years we have arisen to the point of seeking legislation in the
defense of our civil rights, and it is hoped that as the years pass more
of this will be done. But in the judicial branch of the government is
where, after all, we must place our reliance. We need a body of trained
lawyers in full sympathy with our community life, eager, anxious, and
capable, prepared at any emergency to present our cause fairly and
intelligently before any tribunal; and with this accomplished, I have
faith in the American people that justice will prevail, and right
triumph over every wrong. I do not mean that the lawyer is to seek such
service by the fomenting of litigation; far from it, but let him be
prepared for it by study and devotion to racial ideals, and when the
hour comes he will be called on to marshal its forces and take charge of
the legal contests of a race. This will never be if he dreams only of
his money, if he thinks only of present material gain, if he counts his
successes in terms of houses and lands. He must be willing to serve for
the sake of the service. The failures in our professional life come
almost wholly from those who had no high ideals of their calling, and no
devotion to the interests of their race or country. Country and race in
this matter are synonymous; you can't serve one without at the same time
serving the other. The lawyer who advocates the protection of the
lives, the property, and the civic welfare of ten millions of Americans
of whatever hue, or origin, is not a racial zealot, but a patriot of the
highest character, and his worth in preserving the nation's ideals is
beyond calculation.

Young men, you who are either about to leave these halls for the active
life of the lawyer, or you who are just beginning the pursuit of your
studies here looking to the same end, I bring you, I hope, no
discouraging note. My aim is to do the contrary. The heavy burdens the
race is bearing in the form of unjust laws and practises, in strained
constructions of statutes, constitutions, and the common law; in the
thousand ways which the ingenuity of the prejudiced find to bar us from
the full enjoyment of American liberty and freedom, these will some day,
along with those of us who are now at the bar, furnish your greatest
opportunity. Your duty then, as now, will be to fortify yourselves with
all the learning which this institution provides, with all that the
libraries in your reach contain, with all that close and intimate
association with others of your profession will secure, with sincere
devotion to the ideals and traditions of our noble profession, and with
no less devotion to the interest of your clients, and a determination
faithfully and loyally and efficiently to serve your race, your nation
and your God.

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