Exactly 198 years ago this week, on June 8, 1823, Robert Morris was born in Salem, Massachusetts.
His educational background is absolutely amazing. At age 15, he was employed as a servant for white abolitionist attorney Ellis Gray Loring, who was so impressed with Morris’ intellect that he began tutoring him to become a lawyer. Loring later presented Morris to the Massachusetts bar for admission after he had passed that state’s exam in 1847 at age 24.
Although Morris wasn’t technically the first Black person in America to become a lawyer — Macon Bolling Allen was when he passed the Maine bar exam in 1844 — I nonetheless refer to Morris as the “first” (in quotation marks) for three reasons.
Reason No. 1: J. Clay Smith Jr., former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman and former Howard University professor, wrote in “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944” that Morris was “the first really successful colored lawyer in America.”
Reason No. 2: Morris was the first Black lawyer to file a lawsuit.
Reason No. 3: Morris was the first Black lawyer to win a lawsuit.
The aforementioned reason No. 2 concerns the 1848 Roberts v. Boston case in which Morris sued, as reported in courthousenews.com, “over the lack of school access for Black children in Boston ... (a city that) had 159 white-exclusive schools in the 1840s, while Black children had (only) two....”
Regrettably, the racist Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that Boston’s anti-Black student policy was neither “unreasonable” nor “illegal.” Despite that ruling, Morris’ lawsuit obviously laid the essential foundation for victory, albeit about 100 years later, in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to his civil rights lawsuits, Morris filed groundbreaking human rights lawsuits to vacate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the famous cases of Anthony Burns and later Shadrach Minkins, both of whom had escaped enslavement in Virginia before fleeing to Massachusetts.
Morris wasn’t just a lawyer, though. He was also a fiery abolitionist, which explains why, in addition to arguing the law in court for Minkins, he justifiably broke the law by physically helping Minkins to violently break out of the courthouse jail. Although Morris was arrested and charged for that escape conspiracy, he was ultimately acquitted.
Morris later served as a judge when he was appointed to the position of Massachusetts magistrate by anti-slavery Gov. John Albion Andrew.
It is interesting that Morris owned and made strategic notations in a copy of “David Walker’s Appeal,” the incendiary and revolutionary abolitionist call-to-arms book. It is also interesting that he became mentor to Walker’s son, Edwin, who himself became a lawyer.
No discussion about Morris is complete without referencing Charles Hamilton Houston, who was born 72 years after Morris in 1895 and who obviously was the cultural descendant of Morris. Houston, the architect of civil rights litigation in the mid-1930s through the late-1940s, was the behind-the-scenes legal strategist during that period who was essential to victory in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
In 1929, while leading the effort that within two years would result in the accreditation of Howard University School of Law by the American Bar Association and membership in the Association of American Law Schools, Houston, as the school’s de facto dean, proclaimed to his students, “(The Negro) lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”
Although Morris became a revered ancestor on Dec. 12, 1882, his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of all Black lawyers who choose to be “social engineers,” not “parasites on society,” and who are fixated on change, not dollars — which means social change, not sell-out dollars.
Unfortunately, most of America’s approximately 66,500 Black lawyers are not social engineers like Morris. If they were, our people would have overcome a long time ago and the revolution would have arrived a long time ago.
Also unfortunately, most Black lawyers don’t want to change this racially corrupt system like Morris wanted. They instead want to benefit from it.
But fortunately, some Black lawyers, like Morris, sincerely want and zealously pursue social change by serving as its vanguard — Black lawyers like those in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, and especially the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL).
The NCBL, founded in 1968, continues to describe itself in 2021 as “The Legal Arm of the Movement for Black Liberation.” On its website at ncbl.org, it states:
“A small group of Black lawyers refused to sit idly by while the iron fist of the government came down hard on the bravest and most intelligent of the Black community’s younger generation. This period forced the birth of the NCBL, which, as an organization, began to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with (lawful) rifle-toting revolutionaries. NCBL walked into courtrooms around the country armed only with guts and the law.”
The NCBL has represented Black heroes such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and the Attica inmates, just to name a few. It continues to support Mumia Abu-Jamal, Palestinian activists, and others still seeking justice today.
And the NCBL created the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP), which is “designed to help prepare lawyers, law students, and legal workers with ... strategies to combat police violence....”
Morris was Brown v. Board of Education before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. He was Charles Hamilton Houston before Charles Hamilton Houston in 1895. He was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund before the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1940. He was the National Lawyers Guild before the National Lawyers Guild in 1937. He was the ACLU before the ACLU in 1920. And he was the National Conference of Black Lawyers before the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 1968.
All of that is the legacy of Robert Morris, Esquire.
Morris used the law to change the law. Happy 198th Birthday, Black Attorney Extraordinaire!