Fifty years ago this month, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Marshall, whose younger self is portrayed in the recently released movie, “Marshall,” almost did not become an attorney. In 1930, the University Of Maryland School Of Law refused to admit him into law school simply because he was black. Instead, he attended the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C. He graduated first in his class and was inspired to become a “social engineer” and the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights attorney. Marshall’s legal victories led to the dismantling of legally mandated segregation in public education.
This month, many of the nation’s best and brightest students from historically black colleges and universities are meeting in Washington, D.C. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s Leadership Institute will bring students from the 47 publicly supported HBCUs together with executives from Fortune 500 companies and major federal agencies for networking and recruitment.
This conference will cast a spotlight on why HBCUs are still vital and indispensable. HBCUs have prepared leaders like Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who have had a transformative effect on the nation. HBCUs are uniquely qualified to develop a richly diverse talented pool of graduates that this nation needs to prosper as a global leader. HBCUs have been leaders in providing educational access not only to African-American students but also to students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. It was HBCU graduates like Katherine Johnson who helped America propel into outer space as mathematicians for NASA.
HBCUs particularly play a pivotal role in the postsecondary education of African-Americans. While HBCUs account for only 3 percent of the nation’s colleges, they account for approximately 20 percent of the degrees awarded to African-Americans. In terms of absolute numbers, the number of students attending HBCUs is at an all-time high.
Because our nation needs a highly skilled workforce, HBCUs are more essential than ever. Awarding 1.3 million degrees over the past 30 years, HBCUs graduate approximately 85 percent of African-American students who become medical doctors, 50 percent of African-American teachers, 50 percent of African-Americans with degrees in mathematics and the natural sciences, 25 percent of African-Americans with degrees in engineering, and 75 percent of all African-Americans who eventually earn Ph.D degrees.
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Private companies and government agencies cannot hire the talented and capable employees they need without having a talented workforce that looks like 21st century America. Recruiting, retaining and promoting graduates of HBCUs at every level is not a nicety — it is a necessity.
For private and public institutions facing the challenges of a vastly changing society, graduates of HBCU law schools can contribute to the solution.
There are currently six ABA-accredited HBCU Law Schools in American today. Today’s HBCU law schools are among the most racially diverse law schools in the nation that are producing lawyer leaders for the 21st century. Nearly half of the 2,500 law students enrolled at the Howard University Law School, North Carolina Central University Law School, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law and the Southern University Law Center are “other race” students.
As chancellor of the Southern University Law Center, I am proud to be a leader of a law school created 70 years ago by the relentless efforts of a young Thurgood Marshall. Because of the legacy created by Marshall, the Southern University Law Center can proudly boast that it is (a) one of the most racially diverse law schools in America producing lawyer leaders; and (b) produced alums who filed a lawsuit that resulted in making Louisiana the state with the highest number of African-American judges per capita.
As audiences flock to the film “Marshall,” many will wonder, as I do, why the nation ever refused to use his talents to the fullest. We cannot change the past, but we must build a future where we invest in HBCUs, recruit their graduates, and develop a workforce that reflects the restless energies, the varied heritages, and the untapped talents of all Americans.