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Blacks in the law

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There are an estimated 7,000 licensed lawyers in Arkansas (gosh, it seems like more), and only about 200 of them are black. The estimate comes from Eric Spencer Buchanan of Little Rock, a black lawyer and president of the W. Harold Flowers Law Society. The W. Harold Flowers Law Society, also with an estimated membership of 200, is the Arkansas affiliate of the National Bar Association, a black professional organization that exists alongside the much larger, and predominantly white, American Bar Association.

Buchanan also estimates that there are about 15 black judges in Arkansas. Not too many years ago, there were none. Buchanan is the source of these numbers because there is no official source. Both the Arkansas Supreme Court, which regulates the practice of law in Arkansas, and the state Administrative Office of the Courts say they don’t keep records on race.

Arkansas even has a black law school dean now. Or, to put it another way, half the state’s law deans are black. To put it yet another way, half the state’s law deans are women. All this apparent advancement for minorities was accomplished in one stroke last year, when Cynthia Nance was named dean of the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville. The dean of the state’s other law school, the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is Charles W. Goldner Jr.

The law schools do keep records on race, and not just the dean’s. The UAF school has 440 students, 77 of whom are black. The UALR school has 446 students, including 38 blacks.

Arkansas had no black law students until 1948, when Silas Hunt was admitted to the UAF law school. The UALR school didn’t come into existence until 20 years later. Hunt was the first black admitted to a white Southern university since Reconstruction, and the first ever admitted to a professional or graduate school. He didn’t complete his studies though, dying of tuberculosis in 1949.

One of the people who helped Hunt win admittance to the law school was the same W. Harold Flowers for whom the law society is named. Flowers attended law school in Washington before returning to his home state and starting a law practice at Pine Bluff in 1938. Throughout the 1940s, he was “the leading advocate for civil rights in Arkansas,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He led black voter registration drives, was an NAACP official when that was risky business, and won landmark lawsuits, including a Jefferson County case in which he demanded black jurors, and got them, the first blacks to serve on a Jefferson County jury since Reconstruction. In the 1950s, Daisy Bates and other black activists came to overshadow Flowers in the Arkansas civil rights movement, but he remained an influential figure. In the ‘80s, he served on the Arkansas Court of Appeals by appointment of Gov. Bill Clinton. He died in 1990.

Before Flowers, a black lawyer with the imposing name of Scipio Africanus Jones was prominent. He graduated from Shorter College in 1885, was denied admittance to the U of A law school, and got his legal education by reading law under the supervision of white lawyers. Jones became the leading black lawyer in Little Rock, and is best remembered for representing a dozen black men who’d been convicted and sentenced to die in connection with the Elaine race riot of 1919. (Although far more blacks than whites were killed in the rioting, no whites were convicted.) Pursuing the case even after the energy of out-of-state NAACP lawyers had flagged, Jones filed appeals, wrote letters and badgered governors until eventually all 12 of the defendants were spared and released. A black newspaper, the Arkansas Survey, wrote:

“Mr. Jones went down to Helena and took charge of that case when it was a tangled mess after the defendants had been beaten into making damaging statements. He went down there and gathered the data for his case when Helena was a seething cauldron of Hate; when the least indiscretion meant death … Praise him for his knowledge of law, his nerve, his patience and his sagacity. [He] will receive little glory, but it is the great state of Arkansas which is the real beneficiary of his service.”

Jones continued to fight discrimination and stayed active in the Republican Party until his death in 1943. A North Little Rock high school for black students was named for him. Jones High vanished when the public schools were integrated, but a Little Rock postoffice branch is to be named in his honor under recent legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder.

The most famous of all Arkansas’s black lawyers – the most feared, most loved, most hated and most prosperous – is still on the job. John Walker’s office is in Little Rock, but for 40 years the civil rights lawyer has been filing desegregation and anti-discrimination lawsuits across the state – against school districts (his favorite target), government agencies, private employers. He’s represented accused black rapists and fired basketball coaches. And he’s won most of his cases, helped by the federal courts’ overturning of school segregation laws about the time that Walker was beginning to practice. He brought an aggressiveness to the courtroom that white lawyers, judges and school officials hadn’t seen from a black lawyer before. They’ve seen it plenty since. Walker’s critics have suggested that he drags out litigation, such as the long-running Little Rock school desegregation case, to keep the legal fees coming. But Walker doesn’t do what he does just for money, nor just to achieve justice. He does it because he likes to discompose white people too.

No black judges hold seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court, though blacks have served on the court by appointment. Supreme Court justices are elected statewide. Two blacks, Wendell Griffen and the recently appointed Brian S. Miller, serve on the state’s second highest court, the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Other blacks have served on the court by appointment, but Griffen is the first to be elected. Each judge is elected from one of seven districts. Griffen’s district consists of Pulaski, Perry and Saline Counties.

The Arkansas black judge who ranks highest in the judicial hierarchy is Lavenski Smith, a member of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis. The circuit courts of appeal are just below the U.S. Supreme Court. Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed the little-known Smith to the Arkansas Supreme Court and the state Public Service Commission. President Bush appointed him to the Eighth Circuit.


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