By: Frank Stevenson, President, State Bar of Texas*
In 1966 at Detroit’s Olympia Arena, a country singer prepared to perform before a crowd of 10,000—by far the largest of his two-year career. RCA Victor had released three of his singles but (uniquely) never a publicity photo.
When he took the stage, the eager audience went silent. The singer was black.
“I said, ‘You know, I realize it’s a little unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan,’” he recalled. “When I said that there was this big old applause—saying exactly what they were thinking.” After his performance, fans flocked for autographs.
A few months later, he entertained a sold-out audience at the Grand Ole Opry and soon was voted Most Promising Male Artist by the Country Music Association. No longer needing to joke about his race, he began to amass 52 top 10 country hits and sell 70 million records—more than any RCA artist but Elvis. When he was voted CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1971, one critic observed that “the color barrier in America’s ‘whitest’ music had been broken.”
His name is Charley Pride.
An inspiring story—that one of 11 children of sharecroppers in Sledge, Mississippi, rose to dominate the genre of music he loved, despite the narrow racial attitudes of many of its white fans and the scorn many of his own family and Delta neighbors felt toward “cowboy music.” Remarkable that people could see past—even through—their differences to celebrate something they held in common.
Perhaps no less remarkable today—when we’d rather unfriend than understand the person with whom we disagree or differ. When divergent voices get drowned out in the cyclonic vitriol of our national “dialogue.” What role—or even obligation—do we as lawyers have in our increasingly wind-swept world?
First we must be good examples ourselves, ensuring that different views and voices are heard within our own association.
We must recommit ourselves to the State Bar programs that send attorneys into schools to encourage students to consider a legal career. We must celebrate the dozens of State Bar practice area and diversity sections. We must support programs for minority and female lawyers and law students on interviewing, networking, and leadership skills. We must ensure our bar’s board of directors remains composed of lawyers and public members diverse by every geographical, practice setting and specialty, urban and rural, race and ethnicity, gender, and other measure.
Is that sufficient?
There have never been fewer lawyers in Congress. Even as our population’s percentage of lawyers surges, the percentage in Congress steadily declines. From a high of 80 percent in the mid-19th century, to under 60 percent by the 1960s, to less than 40 percent today. Although not as precipitous, a similar decline has occurred in state legislatures.
Some think the lessening presence of lawyers—especially the estimable ones who could bring their unique problem-solving skills, capacity to disagree without being disagreeable, and commitment to civility—contributes to the increasingly corrosive atmosphere of our highest chambers.
Count me among the “some.”
But worst of all, lawyers are not being forced out, they’re opting out—ceding their public service role in pursuit of career goals. Recall that 25 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers, as were 32 of the 55 who framed the Constitution. What if they’d shared our miserly understanding of “career”?
In the prime of Charley Pride’s career, there was no more democratic institution than Top 40 radio. During my brief broadcasting “career” at KJIM “Redneck Radio” in Fort Worth, the playlist consisted of vinyl 45s hung from pegs. The No. 1 single had a peg to itself, Nos. 2 and 3 shared the next, 4, 5, 6, and 7 the next, and so on. Moving in a pattern through the pegs, playing the next (or only) record on each peg, ensured the most-popular disks got the most play.
It also compelled us to listen to everybody else’s favorite song in order to hear our own. Now technology ensures we never have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear. That applies to more than our tunes.
The naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote grandly about the tiny chickadee—how it fears the wind, flying only on calm days and eschewing wind-swept places. “To the chickadee, winter wind is the boundary of the habitable world.”
If you think our nation has nothing in common with the chickadee, you need to tweet more. All media report that Americans are undergoing “the Big Sort,” choosing to flock with the like-minded in where we live, work, worship, and recreate. Apartment listings specify no Republicans or no Democrats. All seeking a life out of the wind.
Understandable, since when political divisions are fierce, we may feel something of a “winter wind” blowing across our Republic. But lawyers are not chickadees—in fact, we’re their opposites. Winter wind is not the boundary of our habitable world, it is our world. Our métier and purpose—what we are trained and made for.
Lawyers are fitted for the wind.
We must respond when others simply react. Reflect when others simply reject. Reason when others simply rage.
We must reclaim our public voice, affirming our heritage of placing citizenship at career’s core, and not eschew our nation’s windy places where we’re needed most.
Our State Bar and our dealings with one another must serve as examples—as we neither keep silent nor silence others, regardless of how differently they think, act, look, or live. We must demonstrate that nothing is more inimical to a free society than the fear of ideas.
And we must be hopeful, and—using Gerard Manley Hopkins’ luminous image—grateful for our lavish blessings borne by “bright wings,” especially as Americans.
Such as the 83rd birthday of the son of sharecroppers being celebrated in Dallas the 18th of this month.
Happy Birthday, Charley Pride.
*Reprinted with permission of the Texas Bar Journal. This article originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of the Texas Bar Journal.