Open letter honors Wiley Branton’s legacy

Isaiah 6:8-13: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

America is at an inflection point. We have seen rights and freedoms eroded through legislation and court decisions, watched tyrannical behavior from elected officials, and witnessed an insurrection attempt to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power in our nation’s Capital. But this isn’t the first time wicked acts have shaken the core of our democracy.

According to vanderbilt.edu, “With Thurgood Marshall, (Wiley) Branton served as counsel to the “Little Rock Nine,” the group of African American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when school board members and the Superintendent of Schools sued to suspend the school district’s integration plan. Later, Branton directed the Voter Education Project in Atlanta, where, under his leadership, more than 600,000 black voters registered to vote between 1962 and 1965. Branton was named dean of Howard University’s School of Law in 1977.”

In 1925, when there was no effective organization of lawyers promoting equal justice under the law and protecting Black Americans’ human and civil rights, 12 pioneers took a stand. By answering the clarion call and crying out to the Lord to “send me,” these visionaries would go on to confront the perils of segregation and Jim Crow to procure democracy for all and establish themselves as the vanguard of the social justice movement. Thanks to their courage, we know the importance of fighting illegality — no matter the state, courtroom, or ballot box.

Credited as one of the founders of the National Bar Association in 1925, Gertrude Rush’s plight to become a lawyer was not an easy one. However, she overcame those obstacles and became the first African-American female lawyer in Iowa.

Gertrude Rush was one of their chief successors. She was the first Black woman to earn a legal degree in Iowa but was excluded from practicing law in that State. She fought for the rights of all lawyers to be treated fairly and equal under the law. Thurgood Marshall also answered the call. Before becoming the first African American to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he traveled the south fighting injustices to guarantee the freedom that is due under the law. And Wiley Branton, the namesake of our upcoming symposium, was instrumental in integrating public schools in Arkansas.

This month, as we embark on our sojourn to South Florida, let us remember the bravery of our 12 founders and the spirit of Wiley Branton. Let us bring enlightenment and intellect to our cause. Let us stare injustice in the face and fight for change.

We are choosing to go to Florida because our presence is needed there now more than ever. The state of Florida has received numerous civil rights complaints over the last year and continues to make national headlines for racist and insensitive actions that conflict with the mission of the National Bar Association.

As the nation’s oldest and largest association of Black lawyers, judges and law professionals, we have faithfully answered the call to uphold integrity and advance the administration of justice. With our centennial on the horizon and the country at a troubling crossroad, now is not the time to back down from a fight for our future. It is time to stand up for democracy and remind our nation of its foundational promise – that there are certain unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.

The Wiley Branton Symposium will be held Oct. 26-28, 2023 in Florida and will serve as an opportunity to honor the legacy of Wiley Branton, acknowledge the work of our brothers and sisters – past and present – who have dedicated their lives to battling injustice and inequality in Florida and around the nation.

In our efforts, we will publish a Greenbook for those visiting to ensure their dollars turn over in our communities. We will also acknowledge the work of law firms and corporations that seek to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion in the profession, not stray away from it. Moreover, we intend to work with partners like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  to educate the community about voting rights and register the community to vote.

Our decision goes beyond the question of “what’s the financial implication if we do not go?” but speaks to the soul of our purpose and organizational mission. Our decision answers the question: “are we living up to our founding mission if we don’t go?” If we are to be social engineers, then we must believe that a lawyer is to fight against injustice anywhere and wherever found.

My hope is that you will join us, and collectively speak truth to power in a place that needs our advocacy the most.