With April 4, 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bass, Berry & Sims had the great honor of hosting Julian Blackshear, Jr., to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy in his fight for equality and humanitarian rights. During a luncheon on April 3, Mr. Blackshear shared his first-hand experiences of how Dr. King’s vision and leadership directly impacted his life.

Mr. Blackshear was a student of Dr. King’s at Morehouse College. During his sophomore year at Morehouse, Mr. Blackshear participated in several Atlanta sit-in demonstrations protesting Jim Crow laws, an action that led to his brief confinement in the Fulton County Workhouse. Mr. Blackshear enrolled in University of Tennessee College of Law in 1963 but his attendance was interrupted in 1965 when he served in Taiwan during the Vietnam War with the U.S. Air Force. He returned to law school after completing his service in the Air Force in 1969, and one year later he became the third African American graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Mr. Blackshear had a 36-year career in private practice in Nashville. His practice had an emphasis on civil rights, domestic relations, banking, real estate transactions and closings, probation, and civil litigation. He is a retired partner with Smith, Hirsch, Blackshear & Harris, PLC. Since retiring, Mr. Blackshear has become a part-time professor of political science at Tennessee State University. He has also written a book of poetry and is an accomplished trumpeter, playing behind James Brown, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters and Chuck Jackson, all of whom are either in the Rock & Roll or Rhythm & Blues Halls of Fame. His daughter, Lillian Blackshear, is a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims.

During the hour-long Q&A, Mr. Blackshear shared the following insights:

Q: You were a student of Dr. King’s at Morehouse, and had a chance to watch him as he developed and molded his leadership style. Can you tell us something about the evolution of Dr. King’s leadership style and the influences upon him that may not be as well known to others?

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse College, was a great mentor and friend of Dr. King’s. Dr. Mays really influenced Dr. King. It can be argued that Dr. Mays’ teachings formed the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. You can hear Dr. Mays’ philosophy come through in many of Dr. King’s speeches and writings. Here are some of Dr. Mays’ most popular sayings of the day:

  • “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”
  • “Not failure, but low aim is a sin.”
  • “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.”
  • “I would rather go to hell by choice than stumble into heaven by following the crowd.”

Q: What was different about Dr. King’s approach to the discussion of race, civil rights and human rights that enabled the movement to be so successful and relatable to both blacks and whites?

Dr. King became the unifying figure of the movement due to his ability to intellectualize the ideas of the movement so all people, regardless of race, could understand the principles and support the protests.

Dr. King believed in one moral law – endless in scope – that unified all humans. This “moral law of the universe,” as it came to be known, provides an inherent moral foundation upon which all other man-made laws are created. It is our right and our duty to obey those laws that uphold this moral law of the universe and cast aside and fight against those unjust laws that run counter to the moral law of the universe.

This is the philosophy that comes through in Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written during his imprisonment following a nonviolent protest in 1963. Basically, laws that degrade humanity, like those creating and justifying segregation, are unjust because they contradict the moral law of the universe. Dr. King’s approach of using non-violent methods to protest these unjust laws is a further extension of the moral law of the universe – namely how humans should act toward one another. He taught that you will know whether someone loves you or not by the consequences of their actions.

Q: Tell us about the longest 48 hours in your life thus far, outside of your time serving during the Vietnam War.

Thankfully, during my time at Morehouse, the professors encouraged students to skip class and participate in the sit-ins and boycotts that were popular at the time. So, many of the students participated in these types of activities.

On one occasion, following a rally led by Dr. King at a local church the night before, different groups of students were assigned to go to different locations to participate in non-violent protests throughout the city. We all knew there was a good chance we would be arrested. Sure enough, the police came and told us we needed to leave. When we refused, we were arrested under the Georgia anti-trespass law requiring patrons to leave an establishment if asked to do so by the management. This was a law created to thwart the sit-in efforts and carried up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. My friend and I were thrown into a cell with 14 other individuals – including criminals. I believe the police thought we would be scared, but instead these “hardened” criminals recognized what we were fighting for in society and instead of harming us, they championed our cause. During those 48 hours, we taught the criminals how to read, write and even wrote letters for them.

After 48 hours in the Fulton County Workhouse, the charges were dropped and we were released. We went right back out and returned to a different location the next day to participate in another sit-in.

Q: Mr. Blackshear, how were you initially received when you arrived at the University of Tennessee College of Law?

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. I was so excited to enter law school in 1963. But early on, I knew it would be tough. I was ignored and no one would study with me or speak to me. Several of the students signed a petition that would have required me to be segregated from the rest of the students and would have limited my presence in the library to a certain number of hours. Fortunately, the petition failed, but so many students signed the petition.

Later, I received a letter, which I thought was sent directly from one of my professors. The letter informed me that an exam date had been moved. Thinking this was correct information, I did not show up on the exam date. As it turned out, the letter was a forgery and although I presented the letter to my professor as proof, he would not allow me to take the exam. After an appeal to the dean was denied, the professor failed me for that course, I lost my education deferment and got drafted for military service.

Following my service in the Air Force, I returned to my law studies at the University of Tennessee. By this time, 1969, the dean had changed his stance, apologized to my mother and me and approved my enrollment. The whole climate had changed since I left in 1965, and it had only been four years! I also remember there were very few women in the class at the time!

Q: You graduated in the top 15% of your class at the University of Tennessee College of Law and you had a memorable conversation with a major law firm partner regarding why you would not be offered a position. Can you tell us what he told you and how you responded?

Following graduation, several law firms in the state were interviewing groups of students based on certain criteria – grades, academic accomplishments – whatever. Unbeknownst to some of the firms and because of my academic achievements, I interviewed with one firm (however, they were unaware of my race). During this interview, the law firm partner told me point blank, “Mr. Blackshear, we do not hire black people.”

Instead of responding with anger and hatred, I simply stated, “Sir, I hear you and understand you won’t hire me. That is your right. Instead of using this time for an interview, can you tell me how I can start my own firm? What will it take?” This response disarmed the interviewer and later the interviewer told the dean that I was a great man.

I followed Dr. King’s lead and responded with love – treating the man with humanity and in the manner of how I would hope to be treated. In my career I’ve tried to live by this example and to follow the words “Succeed in spite of your obstacles; not fail because of them.”

In 2000, the University of Tennessee College of Law established a scholarship in my name and hosts the annual “Blackshear Gala” to recognize current and past recipients of the scholarship. I was very honored that the school bestowed named this scholarship after me so I can honor the legacy of the civil rights movement and continue to share my story.

Q: As a practicing lawyer, you had the opportunity to apply your skills in the pursuit of making the laws more just. There are two cases in particular that are examples of your use of your legal expertise in the furtherance of the work of Dr. King, civil rights and access to equal opportunity. Could you tell us about those cases?

I had the opportunity to get involved with the McFerrin v. Fayette County Board of Education case when I was a field attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund working out of the law office of Avon Williams. This case followed the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which established that separate public schools were unconstitutional. While the Brown ruling desegregated public schools, there was still the question of private academies. The standard approach to the case would have been to use 14th Amendment logic.

But the complaint was contested by using a creative theory from the 13th Amendment. The legal team for McFerrin, including myself, argued that no entity, including a private academy, can discriminate or prevent black individuals from engaging in enforced contracts. When a student attends a school, they are engaging in a contract to receive an education and abide by the rules of that contract. That case taught me that it is not enough to know the words of the law, you must also know its origin, history and context.

Another case I had the privilege to work on was the Mary Johnson v. Lillie Rubin Affiliates, an employment discrimination case. This case centered on a policy at Lillie Rubin, a fashion store, which required black employees to wear white dresses and refer to white employees as Miss or Mrs., while the white employees were allowed to address black employees by their first names. I was retained by Mary Johnson, a black employee at Lillie Rubin, to challenge the policy. On several occasions during the trial, opposing counsel referred to my client using a racially derogatory term. By the third time, I objected to this language with quite the outburst in court. The judge agreed with my objection and instructed opposing counsel to use respectful terms when referencing my client. Ironically, the judge did not agree with my approach, held me in contempt of court and fined me $75. I won the case.

Q: What general piece of legal and life advice would you give today – a day we honor the life and work of Martin Luther King?

Throughout my career I’ve often thought of the powerful words from and the example set by Dr. King. In summary, these are the ideals I tried to live by, both in my professional and personal life:

  • “Be honest in your dealings with all people. Don’t end up in disgrace by being dishonest.”
  • “Recognize that people are all the same. Treat everybody right.”
  • “Be true to yourself. Don’t be phony.”
  • “Identify the moral law and obey it.”