The world has lost a jewel
I usually use my time on WAMC to talk about policy questions. And I had prepared something else. But sometimes it feels appropriate to talk about something that feels very personal. We just came back from the memorial service for Bernard F. Ashe. One of the least pleasant parts of life is going to the funerals and memorial services for old friends to say good-bye. I don’t know how many of you knew Bernard or knew anything about his career. We have lost a friend but the reason I want to talk about him is that the world has lost a jewel.
Bernard was a Black man, the son of an attorney, who grew up knowing some of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement, including people like Thurgood Marshall. I met Marshall and some of the top lawyers of the movement but didn’t know them – there’s a difference. Bernard went to Howard Law School. The very prominent Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, who had taught at Harvard Law, recommended some of the excellent students he had taught at Harvard for the faculty at Howard. People often make assumptions about the quality of schools aimed to educate African-Americans. To be clear, some of the finest minds in the Civil Rights Movement studied and taught at Howard. Bernard had been inspired by the fight for equal rights and when he graduated he aimed to join it.
The quality of Bernard’s mind was quickly recognized by both Black and white lawyers. I got a taste of what struck them when I invited Barnard to a meeting of a New York Civil Liberties Union legal committee. A few softly-spoken questions changed our course.
Bernard did play a role in the Civil Rights Movement and in the integration of the American Bar Association where he was invited to be one of the first African-American members of their board of Governors. And he was a respected voice in the organization.
Bernard quickly focused on labor and unions. It’s too simple to say that he came to Albany as general counsel of New York State United Teachers. He came to Albany to create that office, staff and shape it. At the memorial service, one of the men who worked for him reported going to Bernard to tell him there was no law on the point they were trying to address, and Bernard’s response, “There will be.” It’s often a lawyer’s job to shape the law, to show the courts how the ambiguities of law should be understood. That was certainly what he wanted his legal staff at NYSUT to do. Bernard served there for decades, shaping New York employment law from that position.
Bernard Ashe was a modest man who didn’t like to talk about himself, saying you can look it up, but he had an enormous amount to be proud of. As a Black man he was a first and only at many things but, never a token, he changed everything he touched for the better.
I know from personal experience the enormous respect other lawyers had for him, here and around the country. But we knew Bernard as a friend – a lovely, thoughtful, caring man. We will always miss him but always feel blessed to have known him. We have lost a friend. The world has lost a jewel.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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