Task Force on Integration, Equity, and Equal Justice: NCBA Makes Significant Strides, But Much Work Remains

In November 2020, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Bar Association issued a report to the board of the NCBA addressing the relationship between the NCBA and systemic racism in North Carolina.[1] Coming on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the report was jarring.

The Report resulted from research that began with an examination of the naming of a Justice Fund honoring former Governor Charles B. Aycock. That research led to a review of Governor Aycock’s involvement in the 1899 founding of the NCBA and his nearly contemporaneous involvement in the white supremacy campaign of 1898 that led to the violent overthrow of the municipal government in Wilmington. The research expanded to address the systematic exclusion of Black lawyers from membership in the NCBA for the 68 years following its founding, until the admission of former Chief Justice Henry Frye and Julius Chambers in the spring of 1967.

The Report examined the formation of the NCBA following the disbandment of the North Carolina State Bar Association, which had not expressly excluded Black lawyers from membership. The Report observed:

The North Carolina Bar Association was organized on February 10, 1899, at a meeting in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. In the prior year, 1898, the North Carolina Democratic Party returned to power through a statewide political campaign based upon white supremacy. At the campaign’s conclusion, the multiracial government of Wilmington was violently overthrown in a coup that resulted in the deaths of up to 60 Black citizens, the expulsion of over 20 individuals from Wilmington and a mass exodus of over 2,100 others from the city. The North Carolina legislature elected in 1898 proceeded to enact Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Black citizens and institutionalized segregationist policies that have harmed generations of Black citizens in North Carolina. Prominent leaders of the 1898 white supremacy campaign, the Wilmington Coup and the 1898 legislature were members of and leaders in the founding of the North Carolina Bar Association in 1899. White supremacist policies and ideas were incorporated into the founding constitution of the NCBA by limiting membership to “any white person” and included the addresses during the Association’s early annual meetings. The language limiting membership in the NCBA to “any white person” was not removed from the NCBA constitution until 1965.

The Report disclosed that, after the removal of the formal its “whites-only” restriction in 1965, the NCBA adopted other policies that resulted in the exclusion of Black lawyers for another two years and the painfully slow admission of Black lawyers for several years thereafter. The Report chronicles the experiences of several Black attorneys who sought NCBA membership during this period. Among them, was Eric Michaux, who along with his brother former Representative Henry A. Michaux Jr., unsuccessfully sought admission to the NCBA in October 1966.[2] In a transcribed meeting with the NCBA Board of Governors at the time, Eric Michaux told board members:

We [attorneys] have the training, the foresight, the dedicated mind, the sworn and solemn confirmation and conviction to engineer society in a better place in which to live. Therefore, if you are slow to take this step, then society will follow at a snowball pace in either direction.

After reviewing the Report, the NCBA Board of Governors adopted several recommendations at a meeting on November 23, 2020. These recommendations included:

  • acknowledging the role of founding members and early leaders of the NCBA in the Wilmington coup and the enactment of North Carolina Jim Crow laws;
  • acknowledging the NCBA’s resistance to integration and apologizing to those who were excluded from its membership;
  • reviewing the NCBA’s named awards, honorees, and commemorations;
  • appointing a task force to more fully research and tell the story of the integration of the NCBA, propose additional steps to oppose racism and advance principles of equity and equal justice, and to explore the contributions of those who opposed racism in the NCBA’s history;
  • “publicly and decisively” committing to opposing racism and “advancing the principles of equality and equal justice for all in the legal profession and for the citizens of the state” and working with legal education, law firms, corporate counsel, government, and the public to “promote diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity for all”; and
  • creating a staff position “focused on the advancement of diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity in the legal profession.”

In March 2021, then-NCBA President Mark Holt appointed the Task Force on Integration, Equity, and Equal Justice and charged it with advancing the goals stated in the fourth bullet point above. Eric Michaux was one of the task force’s members. The task force met periodically in 2021 and 2022. It divided its work among three working groups to:

  • celebrate the contributions of persons who opposed racism in the NCBA’s history;
  • more fully tell the story of the integration of the Association and the experiences of Black lawyers who were excluded from its membership; and
  • recommend additional steps for the Association to take in opposing racism and advancing principles of equity and equal justice.

During its work from 2021 through 2022, the Task Force took several actions.

The “Contributions” working group, led by Judge Karlene Turrentine, identified individuals who opposed racism in the bar and advanced the causes of integration and equal justice. The group began researching the lives and contributions of these individuals, preparing to interview them, and arranging for the video-recording of these interviews. To date, the working group has completed an interview of former Chief Justice Henry Frye, along with his wife Shirley Frye. That interview took place in March of this year.

The working group identified several other persons to be interviewed, including lawyers who have served as judges and in government, and those who have made outstanding contributions as practicing attorneys in integrating the NCBA and the profession. Members of the Task Force look forward to arranging and completing those interviews.

The “Telling the Story” working group was led by Russ Sizemore. Acknowledging that “North Carolina has a rich African American legal history, [much of which] remains undocumented,” this working group developed a plan for capturing the stories of Black attorneys in North Carolina who were denied the opportunity to join the NCBA and effectively barred from full participation in the bar. The working group proposed that the NCBA sponsor and assist with an oral history collection project to record and preserve the history of Black lawyers during the Association’s integration efforts. The working group recommended that the NCBA partner with professors from North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T State University to record and compile this oral history. The intended product of these efforts will be an archival database of materials including audio and video recordings and transcripts of interviews of Black attorneys who practiced during this period of integration. The working group recommended that the archival material be maintained and administered by one of the state’s historically Black institutions of higher education. The working group hopes that this archival material will later be developed into edited distillations that will be useful to the NCBA for CLE programs and other documentary works.

The NCBA is continuing to work with NCCU and N.C. A&T to develop this project, and members of the Task Force look forward to its completion and the availability of this historical record to attorneys and others across the state.

Finally, the “Additional Steps” working group, led by Ted Edwards, focused forward, recommending additional measures the NCBA should take to advance principles of equity and equal justice. This comprised two general areas: (1) assessing the progress of the NCBA and its divisions, sections, and committees in understanding and advancing equity and equal justice and (2) determining additional steps that the NCBA and its constituent groups should take to advance these causes.

The working group made several recommendations. These include having NCBA leadership and members participate in programs designed to educate about racial equity; addressing racial disparities in membership and engagement in the NCBA; reviewing the racial demographics of NCBA recognitions, awards, and speaker engagements; and presenting CLE programming on diversity, racial equity, and inclusion. Along these lines, the working group recommended amendment to the NCBA’s bylaws to strengthen its Diversity Statement and to use gender-and orientation-neutral language.

The most visible result from the “Additional Steps” working group has been CLE programming provided during the 2023 Association annual meeting. This programming, notably held during the Association’s annual meeting in Wilmington, addressed the close connections between the Wilmington insurrection, the legislature’s enactment of Jim Crow laws, and founding of the NCBA. Its full day of sessions included the following sessions: “Racist Roots: A History of the NCBA’s Founding, the Wilmington Race Massacre and Coup d’etat, and Jim Crow,” “NCBA in the Civil Rights Era: A Blend of Intransigence and Leadership,” and “Realism, Resilience, and the Future: Female African American Judges in North Carolina and the Future.”

The NCBA’s ability to produce this CLE program is owed in large part to the adoption of one of the key recommendations from the Executive Director’s Report: the hiring of a Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Ebony Bryant.

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The NCBA has taken significant first steps with the publication of the Executive Director’s Report and the additional measures the NCBA took in the Report’s aftermath. Much work remains to be done to advance equity and equal justice in the NCBA and among its members. For its first 66 years—more than half of the Association’s 124-year history—Black lawyers were expressly excluded from its membership, and for a number of years thereafter, the NCBA actively restricted involvement of Black lawyers. Over the course of the NCBA’s history, only four Black lawyers have served as its President, and work remains to be done to create and foster diversity in the membership and leadership of the NCBA’s divisions, sections, and committees.

Work remains to ensure that all North Carolina lawyers, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual identification, and sexual orientation, are welcomed and supported in the NCBA’s membership. The Report and the Task Force’s work provide cause for reflection on the past wrongs, celebration of those who have pressed for positive change, and recommitment to the principles reflected in the Report’s recommendations, including “opposing racism and advancing the principles of equality and equal justice for all” and “help[ing] our profession and our society promote diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity for all.”

Rob Harrington has served as chair of the NCBA Task Force on Integration, Equity, and Equal Justice since its inception in 2020. He also serves as co-chair of the Litigation Department at Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte and is a past president of the Mecklenburg County Bar.

[1] Report from the Executive Director to the North Carolina Bar Association (NCBA) Board of Governors and the North Carolina Bar Foundation (NCBF) Board of Directors Regarding Relationship Between the NCBA and Systemic Racism in North Carolina. The report can be found here.

[2] The NCBA denied membership to Eric Michaux, who would go on to serve for many years as a member of the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners, four times before finally granting his application in June 1969.