The Florida Bar

President's Video Message June 2013 - Alternative Text

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FRIDAY - JUNE 28, 2013

Gayle, what a beautiful voice and a most meaningful song. Every time I hear it, it brings chills from the despair and struggle of our ancestors, yet warms my heart with the conviction and hope for a brighter day. Thank you for setting the tone for this occasion.

- As noted in your program,“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by James Weldon Johnson.
- The significance of that is he was the first African American applicant to pass the Florida Bar examination in 1897. If he were alive today, I truly believe he would recognize this as a day “full of hope that the present has brought us.”

Thank you Mr. Allen for your generous introduction. I could think of no one that shaped this occasion more perfectly than you. From 1962 when you forged the path as the first African American graduate of the University of Florida and had a remarkable 50 year legal career from which you are retiring this month; to you giving me my first legal job as a law clerk in 1983. I feel that it is divine order, for you to share this stage with me, since I am here in part due to your legacy and your fingerprints upon my life.

Thanks to my brother, Cyrus, for a beautiful invocation. You and the rest of the family have always been there for me. I want to give a special thanks to my wife, Sheila, for your love and support. You have been an essential part of my success, and I thank you dearly. -Shenele and Sharde, you all are the pride of our lives. We could not ask for more beautiful daughters. I am proud of each of you - your characters, spirit and ambitions.

I am blessed to have all six of my siblings here with me. There is no doubt that the path that I have walked in life had been made smoother by your good deeds, love and support over the years. There is a host of other family members, my Aunt Ruth L, my namesake Col. Eugene Scott, so many friends from across the country; thank you for sharing in this moment with me.

Lastly, I want to thank my firm, Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm, for your support over the years and the sacrifices you will continue to make over next year. To my partner and friend, Jim Haliczer, you have always been there for me. To my secretary, Christina.

There are two people that are not here physically today that I would have loved to share this moment with, and they are my parents, Sara, and Cyrus Pettis. Fortunately, Mom knew before she passed in February, 2012, that I had been elected as President-Elect of The Florida Bar, and that this day would come. I feel their presence today, for all that I am and all that I will ever be is attributed to their love, guidance and sacrifices. They taught me that I could be anything I wanted in this life through hard work and I have and will forever strive to be worthy of their sacrifices.

Gwynne, you had a fantastic year, and I enjoyed working with you. Your service has strengthened our Bar. You have served well and should be most proud.
Greg, I look forward to working with you. You will make an excellent President-elect, and President next year, and together we will have a great year of leadership.

Chief Justice Polston and members of the Supreme Court, members of the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar, the Judiciary and Legislators, thank you for your presence and support of our Bar.

When we discuss diversity and inclusion, it is often a concept that some find difficult to envision, and even harder to fulfill. But an offer of inclusion without more is just an empty gesture. We need inclusion backed with opportunity.

Well today, God has given us a real life illustration of the transformative potential of giving people a chance in life. When he guided a teenage boy who didn’t know where Gainesville was to enter the University of Florida through a pipeline program, and with that opportunity, he graduated with honors, a member of the State’s highest collegiate leadership honorary Florida Blue Key, elected student body treasurer, and inducted into the University of Florida’s Hall of Fame... that’s the power of inclusion backed with opportunity.

When a law school directed that student to attend CLEO over the summer of 1982 as a pre-requisite to admission to show that he was ready for law school and once again upon admission he matriculated successfully through the University of Florida’s School of Law, only to return and serve on its Board of Trustees and establish endowments that are helping others... that’s the power of inclusion backed with opportunity.

When the law firm of Conrad, Scherer and James, decides to hire its first African American attorney in 1985, it opened the door for a career highlighted as a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and so many others. I raise this not to boast, but rather, to say to you, you never know who you are lifting when you elevate another person to higher ground. That’s the power of inclusion, and I AM THE FACE OF OPPORTUNITY.

If we are lucky in life, there will be a moment when our life will transcend our self-interests and we will become an instrument of good, fulfilling a cause seemingly beyond our reach.
- I thank God that I’m living such a moment today. For this accomplishment is far beyond my abilities.
There is no doubt this is a water-shed moment in our Bar’s history. But change builds on history. John Glenn orbited the earth on three separate missions before the day arrived allowing Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon.

While I am recognized as the first African American President of The Florida Bar, I am certainly not the sole cause of this accomplishment.
There were many who came before me and took the blows of indignity so I could stand tall with pride, those whose backs and shoulders carried the burdens of segregation so my generation could enjoy a life of endless possibilities and reachable dreams.

At every Olympics, the flame is lit by a single individual who receives much glory and fanfare. However, the torch would not be in place to accomplish such feat but for all of those who relayed the torch in earlier days which created the possibility of that moment.
Similarly, the torch that I carry today has had its flame sustained by some real heroes. There were times when the flame flickered with the threat of extinction only to be refueled by hearts of boundless resilience.
- From Joseph E. Lee, admitted 1873, the first African American in the State to be admitted to practice with a law degree;
- Thomas J. Reddick, Jr., 1952, who became the first African American circuit judge in this State;
- Bernice Gaines Donn, 1958, became the first African American woman to be licensed to practice law in the State of Florida;
- Joseph Hatchett, appointed as the first African American to our Florida Supreme Court in 1975;
and so many more.

But in addition to those, there are two others I must highlight. We must never forget Virgil Hawkins. He simply desired to fulfill a dream of attending the University of Florida’s Law School, only to be denied by a statewide system of bigotry, time and time again, simply because of his race. But despite the blatant bigotry, his spirit and resolve held firm and is part of the foundation upon which we all stand.

Secondly, I want to recognize Henry Latimer. I am honored to have in our presence this morning his wife, Mildred Latimer, and his daughter, Tracy Latimer. We all know that Henry would have been the first African American President of this great Bar but for his untimely death in 2005. But let there be no doubt that his spirit lives today.
None of us will walk this earth forever. And our work will probably not be done when the hour nears. But if we touch the lives of those amongst us during our journey, then our spirit shall live forever and our ultimate purpose will be fulfilled.

All I have done is to cross this line of achievement in a race that was started over a century ago. I am the son and beneficiary of a proud legacy. A legacy that is not just about race, but a legacy that is empowered by its commitment to standing on the right side of justice, a legacy that endured the times when “hope unborn had died” and a legacy that will continue to march on "til victory is won. "

Over the next year, there are several programs and policies I and my Board of Governors will advance:
Chief Justice Polston, I assure you this Bar will continue its efforts to maintain a fair and impartial judiciary that is strengthened by predictable and adequate funding. We must also continue to build alliances with our legislators and the Governor’s office to create a permanent solution to funding our judicial system so that funding is not an annual threat to the integrity of our democracy.

We must also ensure that there is transparency and independence in the selection of the JNCs and in the appointment of our judiciary. It is important that people of honor and good character can serve this State and its citizens without a political litmus test.

Next, we will strengthen the Bar’s Benchmarks Civics education program. This program, developed and coordinated through our Constitutional Judiciary Committee, offers attorneys structured presentations that they can use to discuss the fundamentals of government and the courts, with adult civic and community groups. It is critical that we as Bar leaders encourage other members to get engaged in educating the public on our founding principles of democracy. This cannot be just a crisis time activity, but must be an ongoing effort.

The cornerstone of my year will be the inaugural Leadership Academy. From vision to reality, we have created what I think is going to be one of the most significant opportunities and institutions this Bar has to offer. A one-year curriculum that will enhance and develop the leadership skills of individuals who will go on to serve as leaders of this Bar, ambassadors of this profession and servants of our communities. At the heart of this program is the Bar’s belief that inclusion is the pathway to unity.

So many individuals worked hard to bring my vision to life. From Board of Governor’s members to a number of staff. But I called upon few people in particular to share my vision with and together we arrived at this moment. I want to give thanks to Jack Harkness, Arnell Bryant-Willis, our manager of diversity initiatives, and Linda Calvert Hanson, director of our Center for Professionalim. Also, a special thanks to my friend and Board of Governors Member Renee Thompson. You will continue to do an excellent job as Chair of the Leadership Academy Committee.

The Board of Governor’s recently voted to name the Academy after the late William Reece Smith, Jr., a former President of The Florida Bar, the American Bar Association, and the International Bar Association.

Reece was the embodiment of a servant leader which this Academy hopes to inspire in its Fellows. It is with great pride that I introduce to you the inaugural fellowship class of the William Reese Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy. I would ask that all of the Fellows present today stand. This is the face of our Florida Bar, and they are our Future.

Lastly, I am appointing a commission: Vision 2016, which will perform a comprehensive study over the next three years of the future practice of law. With Gwynne Young and Greg Coleman, we have identified four critical areas of the practice of law that are undergoing evolutionary changes. This three year study will have President-Elect Coleman heading up technology sub-group; BOG Ray Abadin studying the future of legal education; BOG Lance Scriven chairing Bar admissions and former BOG member Adele Stone leading our review of the delivery of pro bono legal services. BOG member Jay Cohen will serve as the Administrator of this Commission. These sub groups will have members from across our Bar, academia, business community and lay people from areas ancillary to the legal profession.

It was John F. Kennedy who stated, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
It is time that we look to the future and participate as architects of solutions to the challenges that are inevitable. That is leadership, and that is the only way we can ensure that the legal profession will maintain its core principals; providing public service, protecting rights, promoting professionalism and pursuing justice.
Beyond these programmatic goals, I want to challenge us to greater heights with the hope of making lasting change and advancements towards equality for all people. Individually, we can make a difference, and we must make a difference.

In a brief conversation recently with Dennis Archer, first African American President of The American Bar Association, he asked me which was my dominant hand, and I told him my right hand. He then stated that as I continue my climb in life, he would urge me to lift myself up life’s ladder with my LEFT HAND, and to reach back and lift others to higher ground with my dominant right hand. That statement is a twist to what our natural tendencies are. It is our nature to use our best for ourselves.
But the true essence of life is to share your best with others.

In closing, let’s remind ourselves of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” This year, we are going to broaden the scope of our work as Bar leaders. And we are going to reach further, lift higher and embrace those who we come into contact with, so the words of diversity and inclusion will have substantive meaning.

That spirit is essential for us to truly stand as ONE BAR with ONE MISSION - “Equality and Justice for all.”

I thank you for your support, and let's make this a year to remember. God bless each of you.
The General Assembly is adjourned.

[Revised: 01-30-2014]