“[I]f a Bar Association is afraid to take a step, then you cannot expect society to take it for you. You are the leaders. You are out front.”
With these words, Black lawyer Eric C. Michaux unsuccessfully urged the Board of Governors of the North Carolina Bar Association to allow him and his brother, Henry A. Michaux Jr., to join the all-white bar association. Both brothers were eventually approved for membership, in 1967, but it took several attempts. Their experience was part of a pattern in which the bar association removed a clause that had limited membership to white people only but then made it difficult, through seemingly arbitrary requirements, for Black lawyers to join. These tactics caused Duke University School of Law (where Eric Michaux had earned his J.D.) to sever important ties it had with the NCBA.
In November 2020, in a unanimous decision, the board of the NCBA apologized for this and other instances of discrimination within the association, and for cases where the NCBA and its leaders were directly involved in systemic racism throughout the state. The boards of both the NCBA and the North Carolina Bar Foundation announced their decisions—also unanimous—to each take several specific steps to address this history and ensure that those mistakes are not carried forward any further.
The incidents in question date back to 1898 and extend until 1970, with “an arrow” that seems to connect the older and more recent events, says Executive Director Jason Hensley. The underlying theme he sees is that throughout the entire time period, NCBA founders, its eventual leaders, and the organization itself either directly promoted racial discrimination or failed to put a stop to it when given the opportunity.
And while many would say that even 1970 was a long time ago and that the past is the past, Hensley has a different point of view. “The past is alive and well,” he says, noting that the consequences of unjust actions in the past often build on each other as time goes on. “And it is alive and well until we address its wrongs.”