Thursday, February 14, 2008
Helm, Six Others, Oust Blacks From ABA
By ROGER M. GRACE
Bankruptcy Referee Lynn Helm of Los Angeles in 1912 joined with six other members of the Executive Committee of the American Bar Assn. in taking an action that would come to be viewed as a despicable one, disgracing the legal profession of the United States. The septet voted to oust a member of the ABA because, it had been discovered, he was a “negro.” Later in the year, two others were purged for the same reason.
I can find no quotes from Helm seeking to rationalize what was done. Although the last few columns here have centered on Helm, this piece deals with him only in connection with his role as a part of a collective…a governing board whose action drew nationwide attention and sparked personal intercession by the attorney general of the United States.
Helm, as a member of the ABA Executive Committee in 1911 (while serving as president of the California Bar Assn), had joined in a vote on Aug. 1, as a routine matter, to approve the membership application of one William H. Lewis, upon the recommendation of the local council of Massachusetts. Later, the fact of Lewis’ membership caused a considerable stir. The Sept. 1, 1911, issue of the Washington Post, in a report from Boston during the ABA’s 34th annual convention, says:
“There was an uproar among members of the American Bar Association this afternoon when it was discovered that William H. Lewis, a negro, had been admitted to membership. Lewis was elected because he is an Assistant Attorney General of the United States. It was not generally known to the members that he is colored.
“The opposition to Lewis as a fellow member when his color became known, was so great today that it was predicted a resolution would be introduced either asking or permitting him to resign. The American Bar Association has never had a negro member, although there is no bar in the rules of the organization to the election of a colored man.”
A Sept. 3, 1911 report in the New York Times relates:
“Threats of a civil war in the American Bar Association and the secession of 1,000 members were made today by Southern members because of admission to membership of Assistant United States Attorney General William H. Lewis….”
The article quotes a South Carolina attorney as suggesting that Lewis was remiss in failing to resign because he was making it tougher for African Americans in the south. Here’s what he said:
“A question of this kind comes back to the South and makes it hard for the negro himself. We have a number of men in South Carolina who are so rabid against the negroes that they make a political issues out of an occurrence of this kind and stir up a great deal of anti-negro prejudice that makes it hard for the negroes and difficult for those of us who are doing all we can to help them raise themselves, by education and other means. And so I think the best thing Mr. Lewis can do for his own race in the South would be to resign.”
Any comments on that reasoning?
It was on Jan. 4, 1912, that Helm and his cohorts on the Executive Committee rescinded the admission of Lewis, explaining that the body had acted “in ignorance of material facts.”
U.S. Attorney General George A. Wickersham came to the defense of the assistant AG, thundering in a letter he sent to all of the association’s 47,000 members that ABA rules did not forbid membership of blacks, that Lewis had been duly admitted, and that the Executive Committee had exceeded its powers in purporting to strip him of membership. He alleged that the ABA, in revoking Lewis’ membership, had acted “in order to gratify a race prejudice entertained by some of its members.”
Two other members of the association were expelled by the Executive Committee on Aug. 12 after it had been determined that they, too, were African Americans.
There was to be a showdown on the emotion-charged issue at the ABA’s annual convention, to be held later that month in Milwaukee.
In preparation for the event, the Executive Committee prepared a report declaring, in effect, that upon discovery of black men in its midst, it merely acted to restore the status quo ante, saying:
“[F]orasmuch as the settled practice of the association has been to elect only white men as members thereof, the committee felt itself constrained to reserve the important question of electing colored men for determination by the association itself, and to that end the committee regarded it as a plain duty to rescind its earlier action.”
The report adds:
“The status of the three above-named persons as candidates for admission remains unimpaired.”
In other words, three members, who had paid their dues, then been dumped because of their race, were free to reapply.
What transpired at the August, 1912 ABA convention will be recounted here next week.
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