Celebrating Black Heroes: The Michaux Brothers
To mark Black History Month, we asked members of our New Lawyers Division to name a Black historical figure who inspires them. Michael G. Morrison II of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC, chose the Michaux brothers, Henry Michaux Jr. and Eric Michaux, both attorneys who spurred the integration of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Morrison writes: I emphasize these brothers during Black History Month because their journey to admission represents what this continual fight for racial equity and equality (in and out of the legal profession) mandates – persistent Black attorneys unafraid to challenge and break unjust ceilings in a country founded under white supremacy, and anti-racist allies and advocates willing to stand in the gap for more-than-qualified Black attorneys.
In 1966, the North Carolina Bar Association removed a clause that had limited membership to white attorneys only but then made it difficult, through seemingly arbitrary requirements, for Black attorneys to join. Two attorneys who overcame these seemingly insurmountable hurdles were Henry Michaux Jr. and Eric Michaux. Both Henry and Eric were denied admission to the Association in 1966. By this date, Eric had graduated from Duke University Law School, class of 1966, and Henry had graduated from North Carolina Central University School of Law, class of 1964.
Duke University Law School, relying on the fact that no inquiries into Eric’s character or legal qualifications were conducted, inferred that his application was “rejected solely because of his race.” Accordingly, Duke University Law School severed its ties with the Association “until such time as all applicants are accepted for membership in the North Carolina Bar Association without discrimination based upon race.” In relation to the action taken by the Duke Law Faculty, Dean Dickson Phillips of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law said, “I am confident that the law school faculty at Chapel Hill is unanimous in its conviction that Negroes should long since have been admitted to the N.C. Bar Association, in its shame that any may have been denied admission solely because of race, and in its very particular embarrassment that any of its own graduates may have been subject to this discrimination.”
This bold stance from Duke and UNC law schools led to the first Black lawyers being admitted to membership in the Association in April 1967: Julius L. Chambers, Jeffrey M. Guller, Robert O. Klepfer, Jr., Brian F. D. Lavelle, James Lambuth Nelson, and Henry Frye. The Michaux brothers, however, were still unable to secure admission. After several attempts, Henry was finally elected to membership in 1968 and Eric was elected to membership in 1969.
Editor’s note: The North Carolina Bar Association published a 56-page report on the relationship between the NCBA and systemic racism in North Carolina, available here, in 2020, which includes details of the Michaux brothers’ experience. The report was covered in an American Bar Association article in May 2021. In 2019, the NCBA’s Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities Section gave Henry “Mickey” Michaux, a veteran North Carolina legislator, its John Mc Neill Smith Jr. Award.