Chicago’s Cook County Bar Association To Honor 100 Years of Service, Struggle & Success
A century ago, Black lawyers were meeting across the country to plan protests against discrimination in hotels, theaters, and restaurants, and to address judicial elections and school desegregation.
Many of those lawyers were a part of the Cook County Bar Association, located in Chicago.
This Saturday, the Association will hold its “Destiny in Time Centennial Gala Celebration,” where members will not only remember its historic political and economic involvement in the fight for civil rights, but will also show the next generation of lawyers why the Association will continue to thrive in this day and age.
Geraldine Simmons, an attorney and the Association’s historian, said Black bar associations survive because Black people are still “excluded from the various circles of power.”
“The reason why Cook County Bar exists is because Black lawyers were not invited to join the Chicago Bar Association. Therefore, they did not have access to a law library or lucrative corporate clients. So for economic and political reasons it was necessary to establish a Black bar,” Simmons said. “Every major city now has a Black bar association. And that is key because if you look at issues like voting and housing – we are still dealing with these concepts 100 years later. Black lawyers have been and continue to be at the forefront of law suits that change legislation for the entire country.”
The Association is composed of Black and non-Black lawyers, judges, and law students who span both private and corporate practices. Interestingly enough, President Barack Obama was also a member of the Association during his Chi-town era. While each law segment serves a particular interest, Simmons said the organization brings members together in an effort to protect the civil, political, and economic rights of the Black community.
“While we have these laws on the books, we need to continue to enforce every aspect of them so we get the benefit of what these laws were created to do,” said Simmons. “For example, even with voting rights we find discrimination and an effort to reduce minority voting. The association and its members remain vigilant in taking advantage of rights that Black people were granted 40 years ago.”
While many Association members take the fight for modern civil rights into the courtroom, others tackle community issues through organized activity and individual contributions. The Association holds legal clinics and community forums and is supported by civil rights organizations including Rainbow PUSH, local chapters of the NAACP, and other local groups and churches.
“We hold conditions and evaluations, and expugnable summits, which helps people expunge or clean their records, as well as legal clinics,” Simmons said. “The clinics help all different types of people, but really impacts lower income people who can’t afford a lawyer. We have one of the best legal systems in the world and this gives people an opportunity to sit down with a lawyer and get some direction in family law, estate planning, and just legal advice in general.”
While the Chicago community benefits greatly from the Association’s pro-bono and legal assistance, bar members can also gain help with their law practices and businesses. The goal, said first vice president and incoming president Celestial L. Mays, is to “become better lawyers” to “better business in our communities.”
“We need to provide and supply a service to our members. We provide Continuing Legal Education courses which are mandatory here in Illinois, as well as seminars which are geared towards keeping us on our toes to what the latest laws are. We also have an in-court bar program that assigns lawyers to a variety of misdemeanor court rooms, and a lawyer referral service where individuals in the office can receive lawyer referrals. We are an excellent source for lawyers to build their law practice, their firms, and connections to each other.”
Once her term begins, Mays plans on carrying on the services that the Association currently runs but also hopes to take members in a new direction.
“We need to pass the torch to the next generation of lawyers and civil rights attorneys. I became a part of Cook County in 1996 as a young lawyer and have been an active member ever since and it’s essential to my law practice,” Mays said. “I have made life-long friends at the Association and they have given me referrals, techniques and the training to become a better lawyer and we hope to create more opportunity for the younger lawyers coming up.”
Simmons agreed, and said the growth of the community depends on the cooperation of all Black professionals.
“There is the opportunity for Black people to stand up and grow businesses. We need the cooperation between all Black professionals,” Simmons said. “It is essential to have our own economic base and lawyers are a part of that. I see the next 100 years as a new frontier for Black professionals to grow businesses and employ our people.”
For Simmons, the Association has always been an “instrument that unites Black people” and a lesson in history that reflects the future.
“An individual can shine in a White law firm but that is not helping the community, and to me, we are only as strong as the community is,” she said. “The Bar acting as the Bar has been able to strive and do things that we, as individuals, could never do. I hope to pass the message that with numbers, power and strength, we can move mountains.”