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Harvard Law Professor Kenneth W. Mack Discusses Black Lawyers in the Era of Segregation

April 11, 2012

Harvard Law School Professor and author of “Representing the Race,” Kenneth W. Mack, discussed his book and the history of black lawyers in the era of segregation during a lecture at the law school on April 10.

As in his book, Mack described what it was like to be a black lawyer during the era of segregation. The courtroom, Mack said, empowered black lawyers to do and say things that they could not outside the courtroom. While a black lawyer could interrogate a white man on trial inside the courtroom, the same two people could not eat in the same restaurant outside the courtroom, Mack observed. This, Mack said, gave black lawyers a unique opportunity to transcend race. Furthermore, success in the profession itself came from black lawyers’ understanding of the tension between their racial identity and professional identity, Mack said.

Mack spoke about one lawyer, Philadelphia’s Raymond Pace Alexander, who mastered the tension between race and the profession and used it to his advantage. Alexander’s success in many of his more controversial cases involving race or civil rights was attributable to the friendships he forged by exploiting the opportunity being a lawyer gave him to fraternize with opposing counsel, judges, and others in the small Philadelphia legal community, Mack said. Others, like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, employed similar tactics to achieve professional success, Mack added.

Mack claimed that the story of black lawyers during the era of segregation teaches us a lesson about all lawyers. Every lawyer, Mack said, struggles with some tension, whether it is exercising zealous advocacy within ethical boundaries or the more philosophical question of whether a lawyer is meant only to be his or her client’s advocate or a representative of virtue in society, Mack said. The trick, as lawyers like Alexander and Marshall discovered, is to simply acknowledge the tension and use it to your advantage, Mack concluded.