“The National Bar Association was founded in 1925,” said J. Robert Carr, the organization’s executive director, “at a time when the dominant national bar, the American Bar Association, did not admit African Americans.” That year, on Aug. 1, in Des Moines, Iowa, 12 Black lawyers, “with a mutual interest in and dedication to justice and the civil rights of all,” founded the NBA, according to the organization’s website.
That year, there were barely 1,000 Black lawyers and only 10 percent of those belonged to the organization. But in just 20 years, NBA membership increased to include about 25 percent of African-American lawyers in the United States.
The NBA, with 84 affiliate chapters in the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and Canada, is the oldest and largest group of Black legal professionals. Over the years it has grown, now with a membership of 44,000, Carr said, and has many standout Black attorneys counted among its past and present members. R. D. Evans, who tried the first voting rights case for Blacks in Texas during the 1920s, was an NBA member. Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was a member of the NBA, as was Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and Marshall mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, known as the “man who killed Jim Crow” and a former dean of Howard University Law School.
Arnette R. Hubbard became the NBA’s first woman president in 1981. District of Columbia’s Kim Keenan served as president of the organization in 2004, one of just a handful of women to hold that office, said Marcella A. Holland, judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and an NBA member since 1984. “Given the population and the number of women lawyers, there are probably not as many women presidents in the National Bar Association as you think. There are only seven or eight women presidents in the 86-year history. I think you are going to see more in the future,” she said.
The Howard family of Baltimore has a long history with the NBA, with Charles P. Howard Sr. being one of the founders; his eldest son, Howard Jr., serving as president of the organization in 1974; and a younger son, Judge Joseph C. Howard, heading the Judicial Council for most of the 40 years since its addition to the organization. That division is now headed by Holland.
Carr described the NBA as a hybrid organization, committed to civil rights advocacy and serving as a professional network for lawyers for mutual benefit and support. The advocacy provided, he said, is both inside the profession and in the larger community. Along with trying to increase African American participation at all levels of the profession – “we’re proud of advocating for more diversity on the bench, especially at the federal level,” added Carr – the organization works on “bringing to the public eye issues that have a disparate impact upon the African-American community.” These include, but are not limited to: sentencing disparity, racial profiling, voter protection and disparity of punishment among African-American students in school.
“There’s a pipeline from the principal’s office to prison these days,” he said. “Behavior that used to be just a trip to the principal’s office is now being criminalized. Again, that has a disproportionate impact on our community.”
In the early years, according to the organization’s website, the NBA worked to provide free legal services in areas with Black populations over 5,000, making them leaders in providing law assistance to those who could least afford it. For its work with “disenfranchised and politically oppressed people of the world,” the NBA gained international prominence, the website states.
Education, mentoring and networking are a strong part of the NBA’s history. Carr said at each of the conferences, providing continuing education to the membership is a crucial component. Judge Holland agreed, saying the NBA provides wonderful education and mentoring opportunities. She added that the organization is making use of new technologies to expand its reach and member access, using webinars and e-mail blasts.
The NBA also has a couple of long-time signature programs to increase interest among African-American students in careers in law. Carr said a Columbia University study showed that despite an increase in available law school student slots of 3,000 in the last 15 years, the number of Blacks entering law school had not increased over the same period. “What we’d like to see is more African Americans choosing careers in the law,” he said.
Towards that end the NBA operates the Crump Law Camp, a two-week residential camp for high school students that exposes them to law careers and the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Advocacy Competition. Carr said the organization also has initiatives to help students interested in the law secure admission to law school and to help support them while attending.
Kenneth Mallory, a member of the bar since 2009, said the NBA is a wonderful resource and a premier organization for African-American attorneys that provides a voice and takes a stand on relevant political issues. He attended last year’s convention and said it “opened my eyes to the range of things I could do with a law degree.”
Holland has witnessed the expansion of the number of areas of law in which Black attorneys are involved. In the early days, she said, the focus of the membership was criminal law and small cases. Now lawyers are involved in more areas of business and a variety of industries.
“I’d never seen that many Black attorneys in one place,” said Mallory. “Speaking from a young attorney’s perspective, it provides for networking. It’s just a great organization. It’s stupid not to join if you’re a Black attorney.”
The National Bar Association’s 86th annual convention will convene in Baltimore, Md., July 31 through Aug. 4.