Third in a series of articles on Black cultural achievements during Black History Month, politics and law are featured. This follows African-American heritage: Medicine, and African-American heritage: Inventors.
By no means is this a complete representation, but it highlights seven politicians and lawyers, possibly forgotten or little-known by the general public:
Blanche Kelso Bruce (3/1/1841 – 3/17/1898) the son of a white Virginia plantation owner and an African-American house slave, he attended Oberlin College for two years.
In 1874, as a Republican, he was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. In 1879 he presided over the U.S. Senate becoming the first African-American, and the only former slave, to do so.
In 1881, he was appointed by President Garfield to the position of Register of the Treasury, making him the first African-American whose signature appeared on U.S. paper currency.
Charlotte E. Ray (1/13/1850 – 1/4/1911) graduated from Howard University School of Law and became the first African-American female attorney, one of the first women admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia, and the first woman permitted to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall (7/2/1908 – 1/24/1993) graduated from Lincoln University Law School, magna cum laude, 1933. In 1934 he worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) handling civil rights cases.
Perhaps his greatest achievement as a civil rights attorney is his victory in the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. This litigation challenged the Supreme Court backed racial segregation in public schools and the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’. Marshall won that case and established racial segregation in public schools as a violation of the equal protection clause of the constitution.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to serve as the first black U.S. Solicitor General, and in 1967, he was nominated to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African-American to serve on the nations’ highest court.
Edward Brooke (10/26/1919) graduated from Howard University and received his law degree from Boston University Law School. In 1966 he became the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, serving two terms as a Republican Senator. He was the chairman of the Finance Commission of Boston from 1961 – 1962, and was elected Attorney General of Massachusetts in 1962, becoming the first elected African-American Attorney General for any state.
In 2008, journalist Barbara Walters revealed she and Brooke had an affair for many years. He is currently the oldest living former Republican Senator.
Patricia Roberts Harris (5/31/1924 – 3/23/1985) graduated from Howard University and received her law degree from George Washington University. She was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. In 1965 she became the first African-American to be appointed a U.S. Ambassador, being appointed Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1969 she became the dean of Howard University School of Law, making her the first African-American woman to head a law school.
In 1977, she was selected by President Jimmy Carter to the cabinet position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and she was subsequently selected to head the cabinet position of Health and Human Services in President Carter’s administration, both first for an African-American woman.
Shirley Chisholm (11/30/1924-1/1/2005) graduated from Brooklyn College and earned her master’s degree from Columbia University. In 1969, she became the first African-American woman elected to congress, and subsequently became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black caucus.
Most noteworthy, she became the first African-American woman from a major political party to make a bid to be President of the United States when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972.
Barbara Jordan (2/21/1936 – 1/17/1996) graduated from Texas Southern University and received her law degree from Boston University Law School. She became the first African-American woman elected to congress from Texas, serving from 1972 – 1978.
She delivered the key-note address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In 1982 she became the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair of Public Policy, and in 1991 served as special counsel in ethics for Texas Governor Ann Richards.
In 1994 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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