“Raising the Bar: Advancing Justice and Equality” was the theme of the National Bar Association’s 81st annual convention
The ruling in Straker’s case, Ferguson v Gies, is referred to as Michigan’s “Great Civil Rights Case” and preceded the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education by 64 years.
Given Detroit’s progressive history and connection to Straker and other trail-blazing African American attorneys, it was only fitting that the 81st annual National Bar Association Convention & Exhibits conference was held in the Motor City Aug. 5-12 at the Marriott Renaissance Center.
Founded in 1925, the National Bar Association (NBA) represents a network of more than 20,000 African-American lawyers, judges and law professors. The organization’s annual convention is the largest gathering of lawyers of color in the world, attracting members and guests from throughout the United States and abroad.
“It’s an opportunity for attorneys of color – mainly African Americans – to meet one another, learn from each other and socialize,” said Melissa Bonaldes , an attorney since 1995 who traveled to Detroit from Brooklyn,N.Y.
This year’s convention featured more than 50 seminars, addressing issues that confront the nation as a whole and lawyers in their daily practices.
In addition to the educational and networking opportunities for the participating attorneys, NBA members said their convention sends a message to the entire African American community.
“We have a collection of positive role models who are trying to excel and it demonstrates that this is something that all minorities can aspire to be,” said Eric Mathis, an attorney based in Butzel Long’s Detroit office.
“And it also addresses the issue of survival. African Americans need to know that they can survive in this field and survive in any type of environment.”
While the conference enriched NBA members, the event also provided a major public relations victory for the city of Detroit.
“I was in Detroit five years ago and since that time there is definitely a concerted effort for the city to grow – you can see that – and you can see that the growth is going to continue,” said Reginald McGahee, assistant dean of the Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.
McGahee’s words were particularly pleasing to local attorneys attending the convention, including Opolla Brown, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County.
“We hosted the All-Star Game, the Super Bowl and now the largest annual conference in the world for African-American attorneys. Detroit is becoming a real world-class city,” said Brown, a native and resident of Detroit.
“The NBA members from out of town are going to find out that Detroit is not only a great place to visit, but also a great place to live.”
As part of the NBA convention, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History hosted the “Welcome to Detroit” reception on Aug. 6. The reception, which brought together NBA members and other supporters of the organization, highlighted the historic importance of the National Bar Association while showcasing one of Detroit’s cultural jewels.
“I certainly hope that visitors to our city have an opportunity to visit some of our great museums and restaurants,” said June Adams, vice president and employment attorney for Comerica Bank, a sponsor of the “Welcome to Detroit” reception.
“However, I believe that our people are our greatest asset and visitors to our city will be impressed with our hospitality and enthusiasm.”
One of the proudest convention visitors was Jean Murrell Capers, a 93-year-old retired judge from Cleveland and a member of the NBA since 1945.
“The first thing I did when I passed the Bar exam was join the National Bar Association. Those were very, very difficult times and to be treated like other citizens our only hope was through the law, that’s why this profession and organization are so important,” Capers said.
While enjoying the reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum, Capers passed along a message for her colleagues and future African American attorneys.
“We need to be more aggressive in enforcing the law. We don’t need any more laws, but we must enforce the laws that we have.
“That is the only way progress will continue.”
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