We should celebrate Black legal trailblazers every month of the year. However, since it is Black History Month, we will be taking a look at some of the Black individuals who have made history and brought a historic change in the legal field. Black History Month is an annual celebration that has been celebrated since 1976. The Black History Month 2021 theme is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity” and will focus on Black families and their diversity in life, structure, history, and culture. Black individuals have and continue to make historical innovations in the legal field, and civil rights arena. 

To help celebrate around this theme, we will highlight members of the Black community, past and present, to see how Black individuals have shaped the legal landscape to celebrate diversity and make historic innovations in America. 

From the days of slavery to segregation to integration, civil rights, and finally equal treatment, civil rights for Black Americans has been a fight at the forefront of our nation. From the days of civil rights to the present day, our country is still faced with injustices against Black Americans. Each movement allowed greater rights and freedoms for Black Americans. While the Civil War abolished slavery, it did not end discrimination and marginalization of Black people. While Black Americans gained the right to vote, they did not get to enjoy the same facilities as their White counterparts. And even after the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, while Black Americans were allowed legal equality to White Americans, and great strides were made, great injustices still occur in our society today. 

The fight for social justice that was promulgated during the civil rights movement continues even today. While Black Americans have gained greater rights under the law, they are still negatively and disproportionately affected in many different aspects of our society. Remnants of discrimination, bias, and unequal treatment from the past still haunt our country to this day, and these can be seen in the criminal justice system. In modern times, there is a renewed focus on racial injustices in the American criminal justice system. This includes mass incarcerations and excessive punishment which disproportionately affect Black Americans. 

Here are some of the legal trailblazers in the Black community of the past and present, and some of their contributions to America.

Leaders from the Past 

From the 19th century to the 21st century, countless Black individuals have helped shape our nation and the civil rights landscape as we know it today. So many individuals made it your life’s work and priority to fight for freedom and equality for all Black Americans. 

As a society, we have undoubtedly felt the impact of these individuals efforts, and will for generations to come. Here are 10 Black individuals who have made a lasting impact on the civil rights landscape as leaders in the legal field.

Macon Bolling Allen:

Macon Bolling Allen was the first licensed and practicing Black attorney in the United States in the 1840’s. 

Jane Bolin:

Jane Bolin was the first Black female judge in the United States. She was also the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. During her life and career, Bolin advocated for racially integrated child services to ensure that public childcare agencies did not discriminate by race.

Constance Baker Motley:

Motley was the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator, argue before the Supreme Court, and be appointed to the federal judiciary. 

Charles H. Houston: 

Houston worked to help dismantle Jim Crow laws, and helped to found the National Bar Association due to the American Bar Association denying admission to Black lawyers. Houston worked to dismantle the separate but equal theory by challenging districts to either integrate or fully fund Black schools. Houston exposed the inequality of the facilities, education, and funding of the separated schools.

Charlotte E. Ray:

Ray participated in the women’s suffrage movement and became the first Black female attorney in the United States. 

Pauli Murray:

Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was a civil and women’s rights activist among many other titles. Murray argued for gender and civil rights as an attorney. They were recognized as a coauthor on landmark case Reed v. Reed where the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment protects against differential treatment based on sex. 

Thurgood Marshall:

Thurgood Marshall was a legal trailblazer for the Black community, from playing an instrumental role in ending legal segregation, to becoming the first Black justice in the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall also founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall argued landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court as an attorney, and won, ending separate but equal facilities, and integrating public school systems across the nation. Marshall was also named U.S. Solicitor General before making his way to become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Fred Gray

Fred Gray is a civil rights attorney who was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives until 2015. He rose to prominence in the civil rights movement, working alongside and defending Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin in courts. Gray also protected the Selma marchers before the Supreme Court and represented the plaintiffs from the Tuskegee experiment lawsuit which led to federal laws ensuring protection of human research subjects.

Johnnie Cochran

Cochran was a pioneer in legally protecting Black people in Los Angeles from police brutality and abuse. The issues of police brutality against Black people have been a renewed focus in 2020 and promulgated the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dorothy Height

Height served as president for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40 years, making her a leading voice of the civil rights movement. She advocated for criminal justice reform during this time, and gained the trust of presidents to create long-standing change for Black communities. 

Leaders from the Present 

The new generation of Black civil rights leaders, and leaders in the legal field include founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, the founder of the #MeToo movement, and leaders of prison reform initiatives. From creating racial justice, fighting voter suppression, to justice for all genders and LGBTQ+ rights, immigrant rights, as well as justice for wrongly incarcerated individuals and religious liberties, these trailblazers of today are truly making an impact on our society on all platforms.

All of the civil rights activists on this list work to advance the work of those before them, building upon the foundation that was paved for them, to create a society based on justice and equality. Here are 10 Black civil rights trailblazers of today that are transforming the way our country understands race issues.

Barack Obama

President Barack Obama was the first African American president of the United States. He served as the 44thPresident of the United States for two terms from 2009-2017. This presidency was a monumental win for Black Americans everywhere. 

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris was the second African American to serve as a U.S. Senator, the first Black Attorney General in the State of California and most recently became the first African American and female Vice President of the United States. This vice presidency was a momentous win for Black Americans and women everywhere. 

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, a public interest attorney, founded The Equal Justice Initiative of which he is the executive director. This organization works to fights injustice in the criminal justice system and seeks to reduce mass incarceration, racial disparities in the justice system and punishments that are considered too punitive. Stevenson and his group have dozens of wrongly condemned prisoners on death row regain freedom, and legally reverse their convictions.

Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke is the founder of the MeToo movement. MeToo is an activist group that helps survivors of sexual violence. A decade after it was founded, the group’s slogan became a hashtag for others to share sexual abuse stories. Burke’s life’s work has been in serving others in marginalized groups, and gender equity. This group now has promulgated many cases including the infamous Harvey Weinstein court case. This new legal window has allowed many women to come forward with their stories of survival, and bring sexual abuse, normally a topic hidden in the shadows, into the public eye and legal forefront.

Stacey Abrams

Abrams is a lawyer and politician who served in the Georgia House of Representatives until 2017. She founded Fair Fight Action, an organization to address voter suppression in 2018. Her efforts to address this issue have widely been credited with boosting voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election, senate election and special election. 

Lawyers for the Black Lives Matter Movement

From 2012 with the death of Trayvon Martin, to 2014 with the death of Michael Brown, to 2020 with the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, this movement has history in this century in the past and is ongoing. Lawyers such as Benjamin Crump, Lonita Baker and Sam Aguiar advocate for the rights of the individuals who have suffered from police brutality. Opal Tometi should also be mentioned as co-founder of the black lives matter movement, along with Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Crenshaw is a leading authority in the area of civil rights, constitutional law, race and gender equality. Her work has brought awareness to problems that individuals of simultaneous race and gender prejudice face. This intersectionality approach followed her work, in her avocation for a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice interventions. 

Ciara Taylor

Taylor became an activist following the death of Trayvon Martin. She is now a political Director at Dream Defenders which fights for social justice. She has protested the “stand your ground” law” as well to fight for gun reform.

Laverne Cox

Cox has become a trailblazer in the transgender movement, advocating for legal rights and protections for transgender individuals discriminated against. She has become the face of the transgender movement. Cox has advocated for rights regarding the intersectionality of race and gender as well.

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is an advocate for prison reform. Her recent book was a commentary on our society,  mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, arguing that the open racial oppression of the 1900’s has been replaced by a new system of racial oppression with prisons filled disproportionately with black men. Alexander explains that this is a new form of discrimination. 

THE COCHRAN FIRM

The Cochran Firm built its reputation on the back of its work in civil rights and police brutality cases. Johnnie Cochran began his practice in Los Angeles by representing those in Los Angeles who had been mistreated and wronged by the police. As his status grew, his principles remained the same. Long after our founder’s passing, his principles live on in the Firm he built. If you have been mistreated or wronged, please mistreated or wronged please call The Cochran Firm. We have been fighting since the 1970’s for our clients and our work has led to:

·      Policy reforms

·      The release of wrongfully imprisoned men after 20 years

·      The changing of state flags

·      Justice for the families of loved ones lost to hate crimes. 

Our attorneys are in the courtroom every day fighting for the rights of Americans like you. Indications that civil rights abuses occur across our nation have become more evident in more recent years. If you or someone you love is subjected to unfair treatment in a form of civil rights abuse, you need a law firm on your side that knows how to get justice. 

The Cochran Firm, founded by civil rights activist Johnnie Cochran, is staffed by attorneys dedicated to protecting the rights of all Americans. We would be honored to meet with you free of charge to discuss your case and help you determine the most effective way to seek the justice you deserve.

If you are in need of a civil rights attorney, please contact The Cochran Firm online or by calling (800) 843-3476 today to schedule your free case evaluation. 

Resources:

American Bar Association

USA Today

The Cochran Firm