This week, at the annual gathering of the N.C. Bar Association, an African-American attorney will accept an award created to honor the “public service contributions” of Dr. I. Beverly Lake Sr. The association’s description of the award belies the irony of this moment.
The elder Lake – not to be confused with his son, I. Beverly Lake Jr., who founded the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission and recently announced his opposition to the death penalty – is identified on the association’s website as a former N.C. Supreme Court justice and dean of Wake Forest University School of Law. A key part of Lake’s biography, however, is omitted: his legacy as a staunch and unrepentant segregationist.
Lake Sr., who died in 1996, was a prominent N.C. lawyer beginning in the 1950s and served on the state Supreme Court in the 1960s and ’70s. Even in the context of Lake’s time, his views on race were extreme.
In 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public school integration in Brown v. Board of Education, Lake delivered a fiery speech before the N.C. State Bar. He warned that, for white families, integration would “destroy both their school system and their children’s pride in their racial heritage.” He urged the state to defy the court’s mandate by closing the public schools rather than integrating them. (He later proposed a constitutional amendment that would have removed the requirement for a system of public schools.)
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Lake Sr. said, “If we must choose between a generation of inferior education and the amalgamation of our races into a mixed-blooded whole, let us choose inferior education since that is an evil which another generation can correct, while miscegenation is a tragedy which can never be undone.”
In a 1957 interview on WRAL TV, Lake Sr. attacked the governor for yielding to national pressure to integrate schools and asked that the SBI investigate the NAACP’s membership, leadership and donors. He told viewers that the NAACP is “trying to condition your children, even before they are old enough to be conscious of sex, to accept integration not only in the classroom, but in the living room and the bedroom as well.”
His rhetoric made him the de facto leader of the state’s segregationists, and in 1960, Lake Sr. ran for governor on a platform of preserving Jim Crow. He lost that bid, as well as another in 1964, but he never expressed contrition for his divisive politics.
In a 1975 rape case, Lake Sr. wrote approvingly of a prosecutor’s argument that “the average white woman abhors” the idea of sex with a black man. In a 1987 interview, he called it “a disgrace to have a state holiday for a man of deplorable character like Martin Luther King.”
In 2004, the N.C. Bar Association, with a donation from the Lake family, created the Dr. I. Beverly Lake Sr. Public Service Award. For the next 11 years, the award was given to a succession of white male attorneys, with no mention of the racist ideology it invoked. This is especially troubling in light of the NCBA’s history as a whites-only professional organization that did not admit its first black members until 1967, nearly 70 years after its founding.
Last year, when local attorneys expressed concern about the NCBA’s decision to hold Lake Sr. up as a model for present-day lawyers, several NCBA leaders said they were unaware of his full history. Their response was to change the name to the Lake Family Public Service Award honoring both Lake Sr. and his son. The association also decided to give the prize for the first time to an African-American attorney, former Court of Appeals judge and NCBA President Charles Becton.
These changes are welcome but far from adequate. Lake’s son, former Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., has done much to improve our system of justice, and his work has helped free many innocent defendants. He has exhibited an admirable willingness to learn and evolve in his views. However, the addition of Lake Jr.’s name to the award, without any acknowledgment of Lake Sr.’s troubling record, simply whitewashes history.
The explicit and virulent public racism of Dr. I. Beverly Lake Sr. is not ancient history. We still live with its legacy today, even if we do not always realize it. The first step in leaving behind the dark days of segregation is to admit how very wrong we were – not to ignore our history while lionizing those who fought ardently for racist policies.
James E. Williams Jr. writes on behalf of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, of which he is a member.