The Civil Rights Movement and the City Bar

By Mary Margulis-Ohnuma, Policy Counsel, New York City Bar Association

In honor of Black History Month, we set out to explore the role of lawyers and the City Bar in the civil rights movement. When we looked into the City Bar archives, we were chagrined and then heartened by what we found.  Did you know that New York was the first state to pass an antidiscrimination law in 1945 . . . and that the City Bar opposed it? By the 1960s, however, the City Bar had become an early, outspoken and strong supporter of the civil rights movement, famously hosting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965 before a standing room-only crowd. What changed in those 20 years and what can we learn from it?

The 1945 Anti-Discrimination Legislation

It may be worth noting that the City Bar vote on the 1945 proposal was a close one: 116 in support and 129 against. Unfortunately, the record of the meeting does not include any details of the substantive discussion. A 2011 news article discussing the 1945 legislation may, perhaps, shed some light on the kinds of arguments that may have arisen: “[s]upport for the Bill was widespread among politicians and the public, but opposition from business and organized labor did exist. Among the criticism[s] were claims that discrimination is an issue best left addressed by educational programs and that laws and provisions already in place at the time provided enough security against discrimination in employment. The enactment of the Ives-Quinn Bill, opponents argued, would impede economic growth in the state and, in some cases, drive established businesses away.”[1]

Thus, it could very well be that, despite sympathy for the predicament of black Americans, the City Bar members who prevailed on the vote believed that the proposed legislation would be injurious to New York residents and businesses, and that deep-seated problems of discrimination would best be eliminated through changes in societal norms rather than changes in the law. Whatever the reasons, the City Bar failed to endorse the legislation; it nonetheless passed.

The City Bar and the Civil Rights Movement

Fast forward several years, and the record reflects a significant change. The 1963 Yearbook lists a new Special Committee—the Committee on Civil Rights Under Law—which included among its founding members Robert L. Carter, Lloyd K. Garrison, Jack Greenberg, Barbara Scott Preiskel, J. Lee Rankin, Whitney North Seymour and Robert W. Sweet.  Chaired by Francis E. Rivers, the first black City Court judge and first black member of the City Bar, the committee was tasked with a number of duties, including:

To conduct and supervise a study of the procedural and enforcement aspects of the federal Civil Rights statutes and recommend revisions for their modernization…. To consider the part which lawyers might play in New York in the promotion of civil rights and equal opportunity under the law…. [and] To consider the extent of racial discrimination in New York and appropriate action under law to deal with discriminatory practices and to provide equality of opportunity.

(By 1967, the Committee was listed as a Standing Committee of the Association and included such luminaries as Edward Brodsky, Norman Redlich and Leonard B. Sand.)

Through this committee and others—including the Committee on Federal Legislation, and the Committee on the Bill of Rights—the City Bar came out in strong support of seminal civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And the City Bar supported other progressive civil rights era proposals that ultimately did not pass—including the Civil Rights Act of 1966 which, among other things, would have barred discrimination in the sale or rental of all housing; and a Federal Civil Rights Procedure Act, which aimed to curb local and state misuse of criminal prosecutions against civil rights activity by allowing removal of such cases to Federal District Court.

Change from Without or Within?

What accounts for this change in the City Bar’s position with respect to the role of lawyers and legislation in addressing anti-discrimination efforts?  History suggests a number of factors may have played a part. For one, the demographics of the legal profession underwent significant change in the post-WWII era: the war afforded foreign-born citizens the opportunity to fight for their newly adopted country and brought them into mainstream American society; this, along with the GI Bill, which helped returning servicemen attend college and graduate school, brought more ethnic and economic diversity to the legal profession.[2] In addition, the number of women joining the legal profession rose dramatically in this period. These changes were accompanied by a change in the age demographic: the influx of new lawyers meant that the profession, as a whole, became younger.

Young people, fresh off of college campuses where they were involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, were actively engaged in these issues, and those same people were becoming lawyers and active bar association members. Is it any wonder then, that the City Bar—already an established and respected institution—became a leading voice for social change?  And, indeed, as the City Bar’s reputation as a forerunner in the civil rights movement took hold, more lawyers undoubtedly were inspired to join: “The ABCNY [City Bar] was in the vanguard of change in the profession; [therefore] if younger lawyers, especially those in large firms, were going to join any association it was likely to be the ABCNY.”[3]

Notwithstanding these salient facts, however, it is striking to note that the Committee on Civil Rights Under Law was not founded by newly-minted young lawyers bringing activist ideas from college campuses.  Looking at the committee roster from those early years, what is clear is that the committee was comprised of, and led by, established members of the New York bar, many of whom had been leaders in the profession—and of the Association—for decades.  Thus, the notion that this marked change in City Bar policy was driven by a demographic shift in the profession or by young lawyers joining the Association may be overly simplified. While those factors may have played some role, the facts suggest a more nuanced possibility: that these titans of the profession came to understand the importance of their leadership role in this crucial social movement and took on the cause of civil rights as their own.

The City Bar Hosts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The City Bar was the first bar association in the country to host Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 21, 1965, Dr. King gave an address, “The Civil Rights Struggle in the United States Today,” at the House of the Association to a record crowd.  As described by the Honorable Samuel I. Rosenman, who introduced Dr. King:

When we invited Dr. King to appear here, and when he accepted, we naively sent out some messages, as usual, asking for members to send in their reservations.  This hall, as you know, holds only 650, and there is room for another five or six hundred people in the rest of the building. The following morning… we had 1800 reservations, and the day after that we had 4,000.  I am sure we would have gotten many more except for the fact that we put a notice in the Law Journal and said, “Please hold your fire, we are going to have to return 3,000.”

Judge Rosenman’s observations as to why Dr. King’s work was of particular interest to lawyers resonate to this day. He noted that, as lawyers, “we are impressed by the vast legal history which has followed as an aftermath of many of [his] activities.”  We are also intrigued by the legal doctrines that undergirded his leadership.  Perhaps most importantly, we were (then, as now) interested in the correction of injustices by law. “We are cognizant of the fact that the ultimate safeguards of equal rights and opportunities have been found in the law, in our own area of activity, in legislation and in court decisions.”

In his speech, Dr. King praised lawyers for the work they had done thus far to advance the cause of civil rights, and exhorted them to do more.  “Your profession should be proud of its contributions. You should be aware, as indeed I am, that the road to freedom is now a highway because lawyers throughout the land, yesterday and today, have helped clear the obstructions, have helped eliminate roadblocks, by their selfless, courageous espousal of difficult and unpopular causes.”

However, he also noted that it had been a decade since the Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education, and little progress had been made to end discrimination in public schools. Quoting President John F. Kennedy, who warned that “those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence,” and Rabbi Joachim Prinz (who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963), who said that, “America must not become a nation of onlookers… America must not remain silent… [i]t must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us… for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself,” Dr. King, addressing a room full of lawyers, stated:

The chance to act is today…. [Y]ours is the voice which can be heard, which will be respected.  Yours is the ability to sound the alarm to alert the nation, to demand a voting bill which finally redeems the hundred-year old dishonored pledge of the Fifteenth Amendment. The time is now! I do believe that when the thundering voice of your advocacy is insistently heard it will be heeded.  It will speed the end of our denial, the end of our discrimination, the end of our second-class citizenship, the end of all inferior education. Yes, it will hasten the end of the whole rotten, ugly system of racial injustice which for 350 years has degraded the doer as well as the victim. If the legal profession would share the passion and action of our time, it has the strength to achieve these magnificent goals.

Dr. King called on the lawyers assembled in the Meeting Hall, and lawyers across the nation, to embrace the cause, not just for the sake of black Americans, but in defense of democracy and the rule of law itself.  “Standing before you in the House of this Association, whose very cornerstone is an abiding respect for law, I am impelled to wonder who is better qualified to demand an end to this debilitating lawlessness, to better understand the mortal danger to the entire fabric of our democracy when human rights are flaunted.”

Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

In 1945, having just emerged from WWII, the membership of the City Bar may have been preoccupied with a need to regroup, reassess and rebuild, and to focus on the interests of New York residents and businesses.  But by the 1960s, the City Bar leadership was ready to embrace a broader agenda.  As Dr. King noted: “In truth, we could not be where we are today without the great rights of freedom of speech, free press, freedom to demonstrate, petition and march to the seat of Government.” The civil rights movement became aligned with—and even synonymous with—the core American values of equality, human rights, and the rule of law.  Thus, in supporting the civil rights movement, the City Bar was, in essence, undertaking a larger mandate: not only fighting racial injustice, but upholding and protecting the framework of democracy itself.

On a more human level, the City Bar leadership also must have been moved by the spirit of the times. In the words of Dr. King: “The lawyers’ sense of participation on far-off battlefields is undoubtedly in furtherance of this majestic formulation by Mr. Justice Holmes: ‘…As life is action and passion, it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.’”  This spirit is, in large part, what drives the work of legal institutions and bar associations, and what moves many of us to become lawyers in the first place—passion for the issues of our day, a call to action, and the desire to make a lasting difference.

To see the work of our present-day committees devoted to Social Issues and Civil Rights, click here; to see the work of our Diversity and Inclusion Office, click here.


[1] See Richardson, Haley, “Freedom’s Ladder: WNYC and New York’s Anti-Discrimination Law,” Mar. 12, 2011, available at

[2] See Powell, Michael J., From Patrician to Professional Elite, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988, at 48.

[3] Id. at 50.