Then and Now Wolverine Bar to mark milestone year for Barristers' Ball April 2nd

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

The year was 1961. John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the first Catholic president of the United States. Russian Yuri A. Gagarin became the first man in space, but America answered by rocketing Alan B. Shepard Jr. for a short but monumental sub-orbital flight.

The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the Bay of Pigs incident signaled Kennedy’s first crisis while 2,000 military advisers in South Vietnam signaled worse things to come.

OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was formed, while here at home, a gallon of regular gas averaged 31 cents. The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent, and a first-class stamp cost 4 cents.
The New York Yankees won the World Series in baseball, but the Detroit Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup in the National Hockey League, 4-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks.

In entertainment news, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “The Apartment” won the Oscar for Best Movie, and Michigan’s Nancy Fleming was crowned as Miss America. But baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb died, as did Chico Marx.

In African-American milestones that year, student volunteers, the “freedom riders,” began making bus trips through the South to test new laws that prohibited segregation in interstate travel facilities, but some were attacked by angry mobs along the way. The Professional Golf Association’s Caucasian-only clause was dropped, giving Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown the right to play on the PGA Tour.

Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter became the first African-Americans to register for college at the University of Georgia after winning a legal battle to gain admission, and James B. Parsons became the first black American to serve as judge on the U.S. District Court.

It was also the first year the Wolverine Bar Association celebrated its Barristers’ Ball.
So it’s only fitting that the WBA is going all out to honor the 50th annual Barristers’ Ball, titled “Celebrating the WBA Then and Now,” at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center on Saturday, April 2.

It’s a tremendous deal from our perspective,” said Brandy Robinson, president of the WBA. “This is a real special opportunity to show the legacy that we have, and to show decade after decade what we’ve been doing.”

Robinson said the main purpose of the event is to provide funding support for the Wolverine Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the WBA. She said since its inception, the WBF has given thousands of dollars in scholarships to law students, and aided attorney participation in many pro bono activities that benefit the community.

The WBA is Michigan’s oldest and largest organization for African-American attorneys, Robinson said, and has established “a rich legacy of service, activism, and leadership” throughout the years.

The WBA was started in the 1930s, but its roots came much earlier, in 1919, when the Harlan Law Club was formed by black attorneys in the Detroit area who were excluded from other bar associations. The name recognized U.S. Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan, who pushed for equality for all.

That theme has preserved through the years, Robinson said, and the WBA has continued to take a leadership role in community and political activities.

“The WBA is a source of support for each other, a source of information and business,” Robinson said.
She said black attorneys once were relegated to only a few buildings in Detroit, and the WBA grew from a “very compelling need.”

Robinson joins a long list of WBA presidents to carry on that tradition and mission. One name that stands out among those legal giants is Dennis Archer, who was prominent in the National Bar Association and the American Bar Association, as well as serving on the Michigan Supreme Court and as Detroit mayor.

The list also contains judges, legal scholars and prominent attorneys.

“They all are so extraordinary in their own right,” Robinson said. “It’s a group of high achieving people, committed to the community, our organization and profession, who had high standards for excellence in work that they do.”
Robinson, 33, of Detroit, joined the WBA about five years ago.

“The WBA has a rich history of service to the African-American community, and standing up for the rights of African-American practitioners to make sure they have opportunities,“ Robinson said. “That was attractive to me. The WBA has a wonderful legacy.”

As president for the 2010-11 year, Robinson has presided over planning the 50th Barristers’ Ball by meeting with past presidents, picking their brains for historical facts and items to use at the celebration. It will include a display of pictures and photographs looking at the WBA’s history, as well as a short video of attorneys and accomplishments of the organization.

“It’s been a fantastic honor to be president of the WBA, and I feel that even more so everyday as my year continues,” she said. “I’m very humbled.”

Robinson graduated from the University of Michigan in 1999 with a dual major in sociology and African-American studies. She graduated from the U-M Law School in 2003.

“I thought that law would be a really important for transforming social circumstances,” she said. “I’ve always had the heart of a public servant.”

Robinson’s father, Detroit attorney Bertram Johnson, was supportive of his daughter entering the legal profession, but did not push her into it.

“But he really does influence me,” she said.

Her father is  transplant survivor who continues to practice law, and handles a large amount of pro bono cases. Robinson called him “a warrior, as anyone who battles him in court will know.”

She interned at the Washington, D.C. public defenders office during law school, and took a job with a local firm that was involved in helping the community invest in re-development. She worked at the State Appellate Defenders Office, and then took a job as law clerk for Judge Julian Cook Jr. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Robinson is especially proud of the programs and events conducted in whole or in part by the WBA which fosters professional development for its members, and the many community service programs it is involved with. The WBA has about 230 members, down from earlier years when nearly 500 attorneys swelled the ranks.

“The economy has taken its toll, but I think we can return to those days,” Robinson said.

Another highlight of this year’s Barristers’ Ball is the inaugural Golden Gavel Award, which will be presented at the event.

Robinson said the award is designed to recognize yearly important contributions African-American lawyers have made in the metro-Detroit area and beyond. She said the recipient will be one who has demonstrated a strong commitment to the WBA mission of advocating for social justice and equal access, overcame hurdles while representing clients, achieved a significant trial victory, or did any number of exemplary feats as an attorney.

“A lot of awards are given to people recognized for doing special things,” Robinson said. “We want to hear about lawyers who are doing fantastic things., fighting the good fight, or whatever that means for their practice.”

“We know that those lawyers are out there, and they may be the unsung heroes whose stories are not being told every day, but we want that to change, and we want it to change through this award,” Robinson said.

Robinson said it’s been “a labor of love” preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Barristers’ Ball and sorting through nominations for the Golden Gavel Award.

“Our past presidents and members have been unfailingly supportive, digging into their archives and pulling out anything they can,” she said.

Being president of anything takes a serious commitment and lots of time. Robinson has been married for six years to Damon, a Detroit firefighter who is also a master’s candidate in the engineering program at Wayne State University. The couple has three children, a girl, 6, and two boys, aged 2 and 4. That is plenty to balance, along with her own career.

But she and the other past presidents of the WBA believe they can give so much more.

“My card could be full with just those responsibilities, but in the final analysis, I wouldn’t be content with myself if I didn’t feel like I was doing something to benefit the community,“ Robinson said.

A theme of the event is to celebrate the WBA’s past, reflect on the present, and prepare for the future. Robinson sees much more opportunity and access for African-American lawyers now than when it first began. But she also sees work is still needed for the future.

“Despite apparent gains, the percentage of people of color in the profession is still woefully inadequate,” Robinson said. “There’s still much work to be done as a profession to make sure that our system of justice reflects the population it serves, and the WBA will remain involved to make sure that access is not held in reserve for a few. We’ve got to keep our feet on the gas pedal.”
 

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