Faith or Foolishness (Reviewing 'Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944' by J. Clay Smith)
Harvard Blackletter Law Journal Vol. 11, No. 169 (1994)
12 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2014
Date Written: 1994
In a sense, J. Clay Smith's Emancipation:The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-19442 confirms Derrick Bell's thesis that racial injustice is permanent, or put differently, that racial equality is elusive. For Smith's book demonstrates that notwithstanding the "herculean efforts" of the early black lawyers, they never managed to fundamentally change the status of "black America"; their efforts, more often than not, translated into "temporary peaks of progress."
This is not to suggest, of course, that early civil rights litigation was insignificant, or that the efforts of the early black lawyers are not commendable. As Professor Smith's title suggests, the early black lawyers are to be commended for fighting and not accepting their "proper places," as defined by the drafters of the Constitution. However, America is (and has always been) fundamentally racist, and this fact necessarily limited the extent to which these lawyers could have significantly transformed the social order.
Smith's book is more than a confirmation of Bell's thesis, however. It places in historical context the accomplishments of the early black lawyers and refutes the assumption "that blacks played no significant role in the evolution of legal education" (p. 33). Additionally, Smith demonstrates the nexus between the careers of individual black lawyers, the litigation in which they were involved, and the evolution of the civil rights movement.
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