After graduating from Lincoln University, a historically black college and university (HBCU),Thurgood Marshall couldn’t return to his hometown of Baltimore for legal training because the University of Maryland Law School refused to admit blacks. He had no choice but to attend another HBCU: the Howard University School of Law. To pay tuition there, his mother pawned her engagement and wedding rings.
Two years after graduation from law school, Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland, ending its policy of segregation and forcing admission of its first black student. He would go on to argue many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court on important issues such as integrated schools, voting rights, and police interrogation practices, eventually becoming the first black Supreme Court Justice.
This story is only possible because of two related facts. First, HBCUs have the distinct mission of training black professionals and have done exactly that for over 150 years. And second, black lawyers bring a unique perspective to civil rights issues; thus, their efforts have reshaped American society.
Black civil rights lawyers: Declining in number?
Years ago, black civil rights lawyers, many of whom were educated at HBCU law schools, played crucial roles in ending statutory segregation and ridding the nation of Jim Crow laws.
Today, the black community faces challenges that will once again require the ingenuity of black lawyers and the traditional focus provided in HBCU law schools. Affirmative action and voting rights laws are under assault. The judicial system sentences black men more often and to longer sentences than other races committing the same crimes, particularly concerning drug offenses. Structural socioeconomic disparities persist.
The social injustices that blacks disproportionately experience today will need a dedicated cadre of the best black lawyers, which typically have come from HBCU law schools especially attuned to these issues. Yet, black lawyers and HBCU law schools are facing new challenges and competing priorities that may complicate their ability to institute national change as they did decades ago.