The following is a chapter excerpt from Chasing Justice: Florida Justice Association 1950-2000 by Larry Stewart
Like society in general, the legal profession has been plagued with issues of discrimination and bias throughout its history. Many early plaintiff lawyers were denied entrance into the inner sanctum of the profession because they came from some particular ethnicity. Even as late as the 1960s, there were certain “silk-stocking” firms that would not hire Jews or other ethnic minorities. The situation was even worse for women and African Americans. Sexual discrimination and outdated stereotypes made it difficult for women to become practicing lawyers, and outright racial discrimination made it almost impossible for African Americans to get legal educations, much less find meaningful employment.
African Americans weren’t just discouraged from obtaining a legal education; they were explicitly barred from admission to most law schools by overt segregation. Prior to 1950, there was no Florida law school that Blacks could attend. While a “separate but equal” law school was established in Tallahassee at Florida A&M University in 1949, between 1951, when the first class entered, and 1968, only fifty-seven students graduated, and, in 1965, the school was abruptly prevented by the Florida legislature from accepting any more students because of FAMU’s activism in support of desegregation. The University of Florida did not admit its first Black student until 1958, and it was not until the end of the 1970s that there was recruitment of and significant numbers of Black students enrolled there. Previously, Blacks who wanted a legal education were forced to leave the state to attend mainly historically Black schools. As pointedly noted by the Florida Supreme Court many years later, as of 1960 there was only a handful of Black lawyers admitted to practice in Florida.
The shameful story of Virgil Hawkins illustrates all too well what African Americans faced when they sought to become lawyers. In 1949 Hawkins applied for admission to the University of Florida law school, and even though fully qualified, he was denied admission because he was Black, and at the time, the Florida A&M University law school was being established. Hawkins fought back, and finally in 1956, the United States Supreme Court ordered his prompt admission. However, the Florida Supreme Court shamefully refused to order his admission into the University of Florida because of the fear that he would drive White students away. In 1958 Hawkins agreed to withdraw his application for admission in exchange for an agreement that other Black students would be allowed to enroll at the University of Florida law school. George Starke Jr. was admitted that same year as the first Black student, although he didn’t complete his degree. Two years later, George Allen was admitted and went on to become the first Black graduate in 1962.
Tragically, Hawkins’s story does not end there. Hawkins obtained a law degree, but it was from an unaccredited law school. He, however, came up with a novel and successful argument as to why he should be admitted under a “diploma privilege.” It was not until twenty years after his original application to the University of Florida law school, at the age of sixty-nine, that Hawkins was finally admitted to the Florida Bar. After years of struggle, Hawkins was never able to establish a successful practice, and he later got in trouble with the bar. Finally, in 1985, he “put down his sword” and resigned from the bar. Three years later he died.
Following Hawkins’s death, in an attempt to remedy the injustice done to him, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that “Hawkins’s struggle for equal justice under the law should be memorialized,” and he was posthumously reinstated to the Florida Bar as a member “in good standing.” In recognition of those struggles, his name was enshrined when the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association was renamed in his honor as the “Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association.”
However, by the mid-1970s, attitudes were changing. Women and Black law graduates were increasing, and they began to seek out careers as trial lawyers. For women lawyers, jobs began to open up, and slowly the ranks of women plaintiff lawyers grew. It was a different story for Black lawyers. They couldn’t get in the door of most established firms. Most Black lawyers could only find government or public interest employment. Those who went out on their own had to take “anything that walked in the door” and had little opportunity to specialize as trial lawyers.
At the time, the Academy had no minority outreach programs. While the Academy was progressive and inclusionary—it only discriminated against defense lawyers—it was a single-minded institution focused only on tort law, and once the tort reform battles began, that was an all-consuming issue. There was also no membership department and a great difference in attitudes among individual members. Some had been raised in sexist, racially segregated cultures, and they carried those prejudices with them into adulthood and the profession. Others saw any type of discrimination as abhorrent. Some resented women and blacks in the profession; others welcomed them with open arms. Beyond that, the legislative environment, where many of The Academy and Diversity issues played out, was basically an all-male affair in which many legislators had decidedly sexist and racist mindsets. As a result of all those factors, there was simply no attention to minority membership.
That is not to say that there was overt discrimination against women or Black members. Just the opposite. While there was undoubtedly some individual discrimination, there was no institutional discrimination. Women and Black lawyers were welcomed into the organization, treated with respect, and given opportunities.
The Florida Justice Association Research and Education Foundation will publish “Chasing Justice: Florida Justice Association 1950-2000” written by Larry Stewart in March 2022. A landmark history of the Association, Chasing Justice chronicles its rise from a small education-focused organization to become one of the most powerful political organizations in the country. To pre-order the book, click here.