In honor of Black History Month, the WMU-Cooley Law School Black Law Students Association (BLSA) in Grand Rapids is showcasing black leaders in the law throughout history. Poster boards currently on display are dedicated to Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley and Charlotte E. Ray. Floyd Skinner, Eric Holder and Algernon Johnson Cooper, Jr., the founder of the National Black Law Students Association, are others who will be featured throughout the month.
WMU-Cooley student Osinachi Onukogu created the board honoring Marshall, who is a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement and was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Most notably, Marshall, who was head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund at the time, won the Brown v. Board of Education case, which desegregated public schools.
Pictured, at left, WMU-Cooley BLSA member Asha Gilmore showcases Charlotte E. Ray, who was the first female African-American lawyer in the United States, in honor of Black History Month at WMU-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus.
WMU-Cooley student Asha Gilmore chose to showcase two black women who have contributed to the profession, Motley and Ray. Ray was the first female African-American lawyer in the United States, and an activist in the suffrage movement. She graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872 and was admitted to the D.C. Bar.
A former state senator and federal judge, Motley earned her law degree from Columbia Law School. In 1945, Motley clerked for Thurgood Marshall and helped draft the original complaint for Brown v. Board of Education. As an attorney, Motley represented the “Freedom Fighters” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She won nine out of 10 civil rights cases argued in the Supreme Court.
Motley went on to become the first black woman to be a New York senator in 1964. Two years later, she became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge. She was appointed to a judgeship in the Southern District of New York where she presided over numerous civil rights cases.
“When I was researching, I found a common theme,” Gilmore said. “Both Ray and Motley contributed many ‘firsts.’ On the heels of the Civil War and throughout the Civil Rights Movement, these individuals never wavered in their conviction that all people should be treated equally in all facets of life. Without the ruling in Brown, I might not be here today. There are still many ‘firsts’ for underrepresented groups in the legal profession. I hope the displays inspire students to overcome hardships and stand for what is right to create more firsts.”