Faith in Law Key to Black Struggle, Gregory Says

February 21, 2003
Judge Gregory
The Hon. Roger L. Gregory serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Photos courtesy Alison Perine.

For a country that extols the rule of law and individual rights, the United States has had a very hard time extending those values to African-Americans, the Hon. Roger L. Gregory of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said in a Feb. 13 speech sponsored by the Black Law Students Association. He called black history "the same as American history" and credited African-Americans' stoical perseverance and faith in the law for the nation's civil rights achievements.

Asked to address the theme, "The Legal Status of African-Americans from Slavery to the 21st Century and Beyond," Gregory offered what he called a view from the bench. He is the only judge on any circuit who was appointed by a president from both parties (first nominated by Clinton and then reappointed by Bush), and despite the fact that the Fourth Circuit has the highest percentage of black population of any circuit, he is the first black to hold a seat on it.

When the first 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619 as cargo on a Dutch privateer, they were traded for supplies. Ostensibly, Gregory said, they were considered to be indentured servants, though that term meant someone who has voluntarily agreed to a certain term of indebtedness. "They weren't willing," Gregory said emphatically.

The first court claim by an African-American was filed in New Amsterdam seeking release from an indenture that was long fulfilled. In 1641, Massachusetts gave itself the distinction of being the first state to legalize slavery. In 1661, Virginia followed suit.

"Blacks had hope for freedom when the colonies won independence," Gregory said, "hopeful because of the language of the Declaration of Independence." But despite some voices of conscience in the years before the Civil War, African-Americans' legal status deteriorated. In 1857 things got officially worse when the Supreme Court, in deciding the Dred Scott case — in which a slave sought freedom on the basis of citizenship in a free state — determined that the descendents of slaves had no standing as federal citizens. " Dred Scott meant there were no rights of blacks that were respected by federal courts," Gregory said.

"Blacks fought in the Civil War to make the words of Thomas Jefferson true for them," he continued, noting that despite abolitionist pleadings, white attitudes had really not budged very far. Northern General George McClellan spent more time rounding up runaway slaves and returning them to their masters than he did actually fighting the Confederacy, Gregory said, and Abraham Lincoln, for all the saintliness bestowed by his Emancipation Proclamation, also proposed "re-colonizing" slaves in South America. "Slavery ended because African-Americans fought for their freedom. Blacks accounted for 21 percent of total Union casualties," Gregory pointed out.

Blacks first believed that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments represented real legal victory, but the decision in Harris v. United States said that the acts protected blacks as national citizens but not as state citizens, a ruling that favored the Ku Klux Klan. In 1883 the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed the equal rights of blacks in all public places, was unconstitutional.

Not long after, Plessy v. Ferguson installed the notion of "separate-but-equal accommodation" in deciding a case dealing with discrimination in railway cars. Jim Crow laws were soon flying high.

"In 1870, Virginia was readmitted to the Union on the condition that its constitution never be changed to disenfranchise blacks. No one challenged the change," when Virginia rewrote its constitution in 1901 to do just that, Gregory said.

Blacks fought in the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, "still fighting and believing things might change," he said. In recognition of black sacrifice in the war and the hypocrisy of the nation fighting in the name of democracy yet tolerating discrimination at home, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948.

In the 1930s, [Howard University law professor] Charles Hamilton put together the team that began the legal campaign against Jim Crow laws. A series of cases in the 1940s began opening doors, Gregory said, with the culmination coming in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that eradicated the notion of "separate-but-equal" schools. Still, he noted, although it was a 'watershed case,' no judicial remedy was forthcoming for yet another year.

"Now no law in our nation treats blacks and whites differently."

"We've come a long way — all due to those people who toiled and never stopped believing. African-Americans have had to rely on faith in the law. They endured slavery and overcame it without having to have a new constitution put in place. It is a tribute to our forefathers that they laid the framework of freedom. It's a great nation and I'm proud to be on the federal court, but there's a ways to go. You law students have a responsibility to foster an understanding of the Constitution and the government."

In answers to questions, Gregory said, "I am very confident our bar is in great hands. I am not one of those doom-and-gloom types."

He advised students that "intellect is fine, but without a passionate love for constitutional liberty it is without benefit. Do not be influenced by the mob."

Gregory, the son of a tobacco factory worker, grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, on North Carolina Street, near its intersection with Bolling Street, which was named for a prominent local family that once owned slaves. Gregory said it is a testimony to the American Dream that he could one day serve on the Court of Appeals and have a Bolling family descendent as his law clerk. "Our nation gives people a chance to become the people they believe they might want to become."

"If you have to be assured of success in your lifetime you'll never try to get anywhere," he said.

"My biggest inspiration was my parents," he said. "My parents instilled faith in me. My mother was a maid in the dorms at Virginia State University. She saw people with better opportunities. She was never bitter. She always said, "Any one can serve!"

Gregory practiced law for 22 years with former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder in the firm of Wilder and Gregory. He was in court arguing a case on the day before he was sworn in as a judge on the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit.

Gregory urged law students to practice with "independence, industry, integrity and compassion.

"Can you imagine a higher honor than for another person's freedom to be at stake and they trust your advice? That's a high honor that you have to take to heart. I am humbled by it and it always gave me a great drive. I loved being in court."

As for being named to the U.S. Court of Appeals, he said, "Becoming a judge was me taking hold of a rope of destiny. I didn't make the rope. I was elevated to service. The emphasis is on service. You can't forget that. We're still trying to make this 'a more perfect Union.'"

BLSA President Elaina Blanks presented Judge Gregory with a framed watercolor view of the Law School as a token of appreciation.

Roger L. Gregory

Judge Gregory
Photos courtesy Alison Perine.

Roger L. Gregory grew up in Petersburg, Virginia. His parents, the late George and Fannie Gregory, worked at the local tobacco factory. His parents instilled in him at an early age that, with God and hard work, he could achieve all things.

Gregory received his Bachelor of Arts Degree, summa cum laude from Virginia State University in 1975 and his Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Michigan in 1978. He was an associate attorney in the Detroit firm of Butzel, Long, Gust, Klien & Van Zile and the Richmond firm of Hunton & Williams.

In 1982, he formed the law firm of Wilder & Gregory with L. Douglas Wilder (who later served as governor of Virginia). He served as managing partner and head of the litigation section of Wilder & Gregory until his appointment to the court.

Judge Gregory was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by recess appointment of President William J. Clinton on December 27, 2000. The Fourth Circuit encompasses the States of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland. He is the first African-American to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He has been sitting on the bench since January 18, 2001. He was re-nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate for a lifetime appointment to that court on July 25, 2001. Judge Gregory is the only person in the history of the United States to be appointed to the United States Court of Appeals by two presidents of different political parties.

He currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Christian Children's Fund. By appointment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he serves on the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and serves on the Brown v. Board of Education50th Anniversary Commission established by the president and Congress to commemorate the anniversary of that landmark decision. He also serves on the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association's committee on Youth Outreach.

He is a former president of the Old Dominion Bar Association, and served on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys and the Richmond Bar Association. He is a Fellow of the Virginia State Bar Foundation, a former Rector of Virginia Commonwealth University and former member of the Board of Visitors of Virginia State University. He is a past president of the Friends Association for Children and a past chairman of the Industrial Development Authority of Richmond.

He was the 1997 recipient of the National Conference of Christians and Jews' Humanitarian Award. He was featured in Ebony magazine as one of the "56 Most Intriguing Blacks of 2001." He is a 2002 recipient of the prestigious Gertrude E. Rush Award from the National Bar Association and the Pioneer Visionary Award from the National Black Student Leadership Development Conference. He holds Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Virginia Union University and Virginia State University.

He is a member of Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Petersburg Virginia. He is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Alpha Beta Boul).

He is married to the former Carla Lewis and they have three daughters.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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