February is an important month for many Americans. It stands as an opportunity to celebrate and honor the all-too-often ignored or underappreciated accomplishments of African-Americans. In my line of work, I understand the importance of anyone who strives to make a positive impact on their community, even their country. Historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall aimed and succeeded at making a substantial difference in our country. February became known as Black History Month through the efforts of Carter G. Woodson, a journalist, author, and American historian. Woodson strongly believed that prejudice could and would not triumph in the face of truth and reason. Part of his legacy is the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In 1925, Woodson arranged Negro History Week, which first took place in February 1926. It was established that month because the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass occur in February, which he hoped would foster a deeper meaning. The response across the nation was enthusiastic — school teachers demanded to be given materials in order to properly educate their pupils; clubs dedicated to black history began to appear; and other communities, political leaders, and scholars took steps to involve themselves and support the effort. To do my part to honor this month, I wanted to talk about an attorney I had the pleasure of working with for about three years who carried on the legacies of Douglass, King and Marshall: Johnnie Cochran. Although he passed away Black History Month Honoring Those Who Fought
in 2005, Johnnie is still known by many to be one of the most accomplished trial lawyers in American history. Being able to work with him and get to know him personally was an extraordinary experience. He had the ability to take complicated legal arguments and make them relatable to clients and juries. Johnnie practiced criminal law and civil litigation at the highest levels in many jurisdictions. His accomplishments in both realms are too numerous to list here. That I have been able to work with a historical figure is something I’m still in awe of today. Johnnie often took cases other lawyers would refuse point-blank, such as cases of police brutality or misconduct. I will relay an example that few people have heard of. Our main conference room in Memphis was named after the family of star athlete Ron Settles, whose family lived in Memphis. In 1981, Johnnie successfully took on the Signal Hill Police Department in California; a member of the police force choked Ron to death and told the family he committed suicide. It is my understanding that there is a movie in pre- production that will cover this case. As a lawyer, I get to see the effects of what we attorneys do and understand how much of it is tied to historical events. Lawyers are often the ones that bring about social change through their legal efforts at the courthouses across the country. African-American attorneys, at great peril to themselves, should be recognized for these efforts. I recommend that you pick up
a copy of “Contempt of Court: The Turn of the Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism” by former acquaintances of mine, Leroy Phillips and Mark Curriden. Set in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1906, it tracks the effort of an African-American attorney named Noah Parden and his colleague to save the life of an innocent man named Ed Johnson, who was falsely accused of rape. The book notes that in the history of American jurisprudence, there has only been one criminal trial conducted in the United States Supreme Court. This book reveals the story around the circumstances of the murder of Ed Johnson by a mob and the subsequent criminal trial of the sheriff for contempt of court in the United States Supreme Court. I believe it’s important to take this time to reflect on the people who fought and succeeded in their efforts to change history for the better. This year, to honor and get to know the history of this culture, I encourage you to visit the National Civil Rights Museum right here in Memphis.
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