The Story of Virgil Hawkins

Copyright 2012 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published on this website in 2012
and written as a guest column/op-ed piece)

     Racism—a form of bigotry that’s been around since biblical times, and I’d guess we’ll never be rid of.

     A story that comes to mind happened a while ago. I’m in the picture as a “yardstick” measuring the time in the struggle of Virgil Hawkins.

     When I was a 4th grader in 1949, Virgil Hawkins applied for admission to the University of Florida Law School. His application was denied. The case later reached the Florida Supreme Court, which held that Hawkins had “all the scholastic, moral and other qualifications prescribed by the laws of Florida.” But the court didn’t order his admission. Hawkins, you see, was Black.

     Five years later, when I was in the 9th grade, the U. S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

     In 1956, when I was a junior in high school, the same court issued an order to the Florida Supreme Court. “[Hawkins] is entitled to prompt admission,” the court said. “There is no reason to delay.”

     A few months later, I had spent my second year attending public school with a handful of Black students. Many of my contemporaries elsewhere would complete their education without ever attending desegregated schools. By then, Hawkins had been before the Florida Supreme Court three times and before the U. S. Supreme Court twice. Yet, he hadn’t been admitted to law school.

     The following year, when I was just about to graduate from high school, the Florida Supreme Court again denied Hawkins’ admission. The court ruled that he “does not . . . have a genuine interest in obtaining a legal education.”

     In 1961, I graduated from college. Many other students my age of 21 throughout the nation had no Blacks in their classrooms. And Virgil Hawkins was still barred from law school.

     In 1976, when I had practiced law for 12 years, Hawkins, who by now had graduated from law school, appeared before the Florida Bar Examiners. His application to take the bar exam was denied because the Massachusetts law school he had attended wasn’t accredited.

     But Hawkins made a unique argument—that he shouldn’t be required to take the bar exam because, had he been admitted to law school when he first applied, he would have become an attorney under what was known as the “diploma privilege.”

     He relied on a recently established precedent. After having failed the bar exam numerous times, an applicant related to a justice of the Florida Supreme Court had been admitted to the bar simply because he had “expressed a desire to attend before the repeal of the diploma privilege.” Hawkins argued that he too had expressed that desire. The bar examiners agreed, and at long last, 27 years after he first applied to law school, he became a member of the bar. He was then 69 years old.

     This unfortunate saga doesn’t end there. In the years that passed, Hawkins’ ability to practice law began to fail him. After all, he had gotten a late start. As he grew older, he just couldn’t keep up. Disciplinary proceedings were brought against him, and he again went before the Florida Supreme Court.

     According to the court record, “[Virgil Hawkins] seldom turned away an indigent client in need. However, his advanced age and lapse of years since attending law school, the loss of a quality law school education, and the strain of practice as a sole practitioner made the practice of law difficult. . . . Worn and weary from the struggles of the last half of his life, . . . Hawkins put down his sword and attempted to leave the battlefield.”

     In 1985, when I was 45 years old and contemplating running the following year for a seat on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, the Florida Supreme Court accepted Hawkins’ resignation from the bar. He died three years later.

     The tale of Virgil Hawkins ended with a twist. A few months after his death, the Florida court reinstated his bar license, stating that his “lifelong struggle for equal justice under the law should be memorialized.” The court was moved by Hawkins’ final plea. “When I get to heaven,” he once said, “I want to be a member of the Florida bar.”

     Is that a happy ending to an otherwise sad story? I’ll let you wrestle with that. The story serves to remind us that the judicial process hasn’t always responded fast enough when a case cries out for justice. We’ve just stood there, seemingly helpless to do anything about the unfairness of it all.