1943 August 27

American Bar Association Admits First African-American


James S. Watson, a Judge on the New York City Municipal Court, became the first African-American admitted as a member of the American Bar Association in several decades. His membership was made possible only because of a rule change that allowed the ABA to disregard two negative votes on the Board of Governors. Watson had been elected municipal judge in 1930, and along with another person became the first African-American judges in the state of New York. When Watson was admitted to the ABA, however, another African-American candidate, Francis S. Rivers, was rejected without explanation. Arthur Garfield Hays, Co-General Counsel of the ACLU, was unhappy with the position of the ABA on race, and had resigned in protest on August 8, 1943.

There had previously been at least one African-American member, who was expelled in March 1912. It is not clear when the ABA became an all-white organization as a matter of policy.

Learn more about the internal politics of the ABA: Jerold Auerbach: Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America (1976)

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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