Jim Plummer, partner, Plummer & Kuykendall, Houston
Jim Plummer, partner, Plummer & Kuykendall, Houston ()

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, large Texas firms were mostly populated by white male lawyers. Change was slow, but within a decade BigTex firms were beginning to hire minority lawyers and more women.

“The Civil Rights Act had a positive action in encouraging major businesses, including law firms, to be inclusive in what they did,” said James “Jim” Plummer, who was one of the first African-American lawyers hired by a large Texas firm.

Plummer, hired as an associate with Baker Botts of Houston in 1974, said economic factors also prompted Texas firms to welcome more women and minority lawyers; he noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “increased pressure for most businesses to open their doors and be inclusive.”

Plummer, of Plummer & Kuykendall, said a lot occurred in society and the Texas legal market between 1964, when he was a high school student, and 1974, when Baker Botts hired him. But he said change in the form of integration of Texas firms didn’t happen as quickly as some people wanted or expected.

He said that many in Baker Botts supported his hiring, although “there were certainly some questions of whether black lawyers could work in that setting and whether or not their clients would be comfortable with a black lawyer.” However, Plummer said, he never found that to be an issue.

Charles Szalkowski, a retired partner in Baker Botts who is a firm historian, said Baker Botts was involved during the early 1960s in representing longtime client Rice University in litigation stemming from its effort to amend its charter to allow the university to charge tuition and to admit nonwhite students. The university admitted its first minorities around the time Szalkowski started his college career there in 1965.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an impetus for change at Texas firms, Szalkowski said it’s true that firms were concerned about how clients would react to change, but they still made changes in their hiring. He notes that Baker Botts hired Plummer and retired partner Rufus Cormier in 1974, and Cormier, who made partner in 1981, is “widely credited” as being the first African-American partner in a major firm in Texas.

Gibson Gayle, the managing partner of Fulbright & Jaworski of Houston (now Norton Rose Fulbright) from 1979 to 1992, said partner Leon Jaworski’s dedication to civil rights causes set the tone at the firm. Gayle said Jaworski was “very close” to Lyndon Baines Johnson and agreed to serve as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to force Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett to integrate Ole Miss.

Gayle, now of counsel, said Fulbright & Jaworski was “pretty well aware” of civil rights issues, because of Jaworski, and hired its first woman lawyer in the mid-to-late 1950s.

“I don’t think we made a big deal about it actually, Speaking for me personally … one of the happiest days of my life occurred in ’84, when we made nine partners and six of them were women,” Gayle said.

Mark Davidson, a retired state district judge in Harris County who researches Harris County judicial history, said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had an impact on integrating firms and the judicial system in Texas. But he believes that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made “more of a difference.”

“Texas at the time was a one-party state, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 forced Texas to get rid of the poll tax and made—in many parts of the state—people of color a major force in the electorate,” said Davidson, who is the Texas multi-district asbestos judge. “My point is that once … African-Americans and Hispanics were a significant part of the electorate, government-sponsored or encouraged racial discrimination was about to be on the way out.”

Davidson said Harris County had already made some strides toward integrating the judicial system at the time of the Civil Rights of 1964. For instance, Harris County voluntarily integrated juries around 1955 under former District Attorney Dan Walton. Also, Davidson notes, under the presidency of the late Jim Kronzer in 1965, the Houston Bar Association, which had previously only admitted whites as members, changed its rules to allow non-whites as members.

Plummer notes, however, that many African-American lawyers in Houston at the time, including his father, the late Matthew Plummer Sr., were members of the Houston Lawyers Association, which was formed in 1955, because they could not join the Houston Bar Association. For a long time, even after the HBA opened up its membership to minorities, Plummer said, his father was “not particularly enthusiastic” about the HBA.

The Statistics

In 1964, 15,840 attorneys were actively practicing in Texas, according to the State Bar of Texas. But 1984 is the earliest the bar kept statistics on gender data—when 12.7 percent of 40,070 lawyers were women. And 1993 is the first year when it collected gender and ethnicity data—when 23.3 percent of 57,921 lawyers were women and 8.4 percent were minorities.

According to the State Bar of Texas Department of Research and Analysis, 34 percent of 84,800 members in Texas as of Dec. 31, 2013, are women, and 18 percent are minorities.

It’s also difficult to get precise statistics for law schools for 1964. For instance, Samantha Youngblood, a writer and media relations manager for the University of Texas School of Law, said that according to records and self-reporting by alumni, the class of 1964 had approximately 282 graduates, including four females, two Hispanic males and no other ethnic minorities.

Mike Boone, a partner in Haynes and Boone in Dallas, who started law school at Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas in 1964, said he recalls only a “handful” of minorities from his law school career. He said his graduating class included three women who were top students, but they didn’t get jobs in Texas.

Carol Dinkins, a partner in Vinson & Elkins in Houston who was hired by the firm in 1971 and became its first woman partner, said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t affect her choice of career, but it did have an influence on how her career unfolded, because it was a “very dramatic development in our nation.”

Dinkins said the act did pave the way for integration in large Texas firms, and culture and society changed a lot between 1964 and the time she joined V&E, to the degree that “I didn’t feel that people looked askance at me because I wore skirts, not pants.”

Harry Reasoner, a partner in V&E in Houston who was managing partner from 1992 to 2001, describes the firm in 1964, the year he joined: “The picture there was true of law firms across the country. There were few, if any, women at large law firms. There were no blacks that I was aware of in Texas, and I think very few across the country. And the same would be true of Hispanics.”

But he said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had an “enormous impact on society over time and indirectly an impact on law firms.” Today, Reasoner said, V&E has a diversity committee, and “we make a strong and deliberate effort to enhance diversity at the law firm … with women, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”

Reasoner, who grew up in San Marcos, recalls times in the ’40s and ’50s in Texas “where you would have separate water fountains, and bathrooms, and segregation even in theaters.”

“It was a desperately needed and effective act,” he said.