Article The National Law Journal

Kirkland’s First Black Partner Garners Inspiration in the Fight for Racial Justice From the Civil War Battlefield

Michael Jones Headshot

Michael D. Jones, Partner

Kirkland partner Mike Jones' great grandfather, Floyd Washington, was born in about 1845 as an enslaved person and fought with the 76th Infantry, U.S. Colored Division. Jones discusses how that history shaped his path as a litigator and his mission.

Floyd Washington, my great grandfather, was born in about 1845, enslaved in Alabama. Upon making it to Louisiana, he took up arms against the Confederacy, with the 76th Infantry, U.S. Colored Division. Local citizens complained in an 1865 Shreveport Times petition about “the insolent bearing of the colored troops.” But Colonel Charles W. Drew, their commander, gave this report: “I cannot speak in terms of too much praise of the officers and men of my command.” In one important battle, Adjutant General S.B. Ferguson reported that the 76th Infantry engaged Confederate troops, “charging like mad.”

Remembering this battle helps me as I think of the current battle we all face against today’s racial injustice. The black military men in this battle didn’t retreat even though they knew that many considered them less important because of the color of their skin. They knew the work they needed to do and how they must push forward and not give up. That is how I feel today and how I have always felt as a black lawyer. I am the first black partner at Kirkland, and am excited that I do not stand alone anymore in these ranks. But I also know there is more work to be done within the legal community. Retreat is not an option.

My Aunt Isophene, one of Floyd Washington’s granddaughters, who was born in 1902, and died in 2016, explained that those wartime experiences shaped his life and later generations—like me. She explained: “Papa said the Good Lord brought him through that war, he was able to kill and not be killed, his family had to serve the Lord day and night.” This is why, in 1870, he established the Truevine Baptist Church in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, just outside of Shreveport.

This same “retreat is not an option” mentality again was demonstrated by Floyd Washington postwar as he built a life for himself and his family in Louisiana—a place that did not promote equality for all people regardless of the color of their skin. But he did not let that stop him.

I have tried to demonstrate that same perseverance throughout my litigation career. For example, it seems fitting that the longest, most difficult case of my nearly 34-year career has involved fighting against segregation some 150 years after Floyd Washington experienced it.

Historical records show that Floyd Washington voted in the presidential election of 1876, attesting to a local judge that he was “a colored qualified voter” who voted “of his own free will and accord.” Rutherford B. Hayes became president in a compromise that resulted in the removal of federal troops from the South, leaving black people at the mercy of Confederates. The Confederate constitution contained a number of provisions preserving the freedoms to own slaves. Article I, section 9(4), for example, prohibited the Confederate Congress from passing any “bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”

Shreveport had more lynchings than just about any other city in America, as regularly chronicled in local media. On Aug. 19, 1899, the Shreveport Times published an interview on “the lynching question” in which former Confederate Captain Ellison A. Smyth explained that “there are conditions that Northern people do not understand. When the Southern men went into the confederate army they left their women and children in the keeping of the slaves and the slaves were faithful to their trust … But the criminal classes of the negroes are not former slaves. They are the younger men who have grown up since emancipation and who have none of the local or personal attachments the slaves had.”

The June 20, 1901, Shreveport Times headlines blared: “Side-by-side they were hung to a limb.” The Dec. 23, 1914, Shreveport Journal reported the “Lynching of five Negroes in the Parish.” Many articles blamed sheriffs, as those lynched were often taken from their custody. A Louisiana congressman opposed federal lynching laws as a violation of the state’s rights.

When I left Shreveport for Georgetown Law school, the Shreveport Journal ran a July 8, 1982, profile of me titled “Mr. Jones Goes to Washington.” The piece recounted my various academic achievements through college, a marked improvement over the stories published during my great grandfather’s time.

Floyd Washington survived the Civil War and the ensuing lawlessness. When he died in 1928, he had many grandchildren, including my Aunt Isophene who was 26 and my father, her brother, who was 18. My father also served in the military, in World War II, thereafter returning to Shreveport to do construction work. By the time I was born in 1960, the Charity Hospital had been renamed the Confederate Memorial Hospital. Through the middle of fourth grade, I attended segregated schools.

The center of our life was church. My family attended church on Sundays and several times during the week, particularly if I was scheduled to deliver one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches, or pay homage to black heroes like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall or Frederick Douglass, speeches still recalled over 40 years later by elderly members of the Midway Baptist Church No. 2.

Many people thought I would be either a preacher or a lawyer. By the time I gave my first opening statement in court, I had probably read Dr. King’s words in church hundreds of times from about age 8, ideal preparation for my path as a litigator.

What I do now is sometimes a combination of the two professions—depending on the jurisdiction. For example, during a trial in New Orleans, my closing statement that I called the “Fulfillment of a Medical Prophecy” moved some jurors to tears because of my passionate defense of my client.

For the past 11 years my partner Karen Walker and I have represented the interests of Maryland’s black colleges to force the state to dismantle vestiges of its former system of segregation, when official policy was to maintain black colleges as “inferior in every aspect of their operation.” Even now, Maryland maintains academic disparities adjudged “worse than Mississippi of the 1970s.” Despite a court order and overwhelming support from the legislature, Maryland refuses to fund a remedy. It seems rather fitting that this case involves Marshall’s home state and where Douglass escaped slavery.

Today, my determination has been renewed by the calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, which has prompted nationwide protests. Among the protesters in Shreveport has been another great grandson of Floyd Washington, the Rev. Hersy Jones Jr., my brother. He directed me to much of the Floyd Washington history and placed flowers on his grave this past Fourth of July.

I was thinking of Floyd Washington and George Floyd when in July I helped establish a Center for Racial Justice at Dillard University, a historically black university in New Orleans, not far from where my great grandfather fought in the siege of Port Hudson. The image of the 76th Infantry “charging like mad” against Confederate forces inspires me to do the same in the renewed battle for racial justice.

Retreat is not an option.

Kirkland & Ellis litigation partner Michael D. Jones has a national trial practice that has ranged from New York to Hawaii. He is an American College of Trial Lawyers Access to Justice Fellow.