1912 - ABA Restricts Membership To White Lawyers

The ABA initially rescinds the membership of William H. Lewis, the first black assistant U.S. attorney general, who had been elected in August 1911. Leaders determine that they had acted “in ignorance of material facts” and that “the settled practice of the Association has been to elect only white men as members."

This action generates heated debate within the bar and in the media. U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham notes that ABA policy does not bar membership based on race or color and that in rescinding Lewis’s membership, the ABA is acting “to gratify a race prejudice entertained by some of its members.”

The matter is addressed at the Association's annual meeting. Lewis's membership is reinstated but is "grandfathered," as the ABA resolves to effectively prohibit members of color: “As it has never been contemplated that members of the colored race should become members of this Association, the several local councils are directed that, if at any time any of them shall recommend a person of the colored race for membership, they shall accompany the recommendation with a statement of the fact that he is of such race.” The Association would not formally address this issue again until 1943.