Levin College of Law

Zack recognized by ABA for promoting diversity

Former American Bar Association president Stephen N. Zack (JD 71) recently accepted The Spirit of Excellence Award, bestowed upon him by the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

Zack accepted the honor during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami on Feb. 4. He was one of four recipients of the 2017 award.

The Spirit of Excellence Award seeks to celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who strive to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession. Lawyers who receive the award have excelled in their professional setting; personified excellence on the national, state or local level; and have demonstrated a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession.

Zack, a partner with Boies, Schiller & Flexner, adds the award to his ever-growing list of professional accomplishments. He was the first Hispanic-American to serve as president of the ABA as well as the first Hispanic-American and youngest president of The Florida Bar. Former Governor Lawton Chiles (JD 55) also nominated Zack to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission in 1997, where Zack aided in rewriting the Florida Constitution.

The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity seeks to promote racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. It hopes to serve as a catalyst for change by pushing the legal profession to more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of society as a whole. To accomplish these goals, the commission promotes the recruitment, hiring, promotion and advancement of attorneys of color. It also works to provide equal membership and employment opportunities to all lawyers in the ABA.

Zack’s remarks to the ABA on Feb. 4 follow:

Thank you, Florence, for your very kind introduction. And I thank the commission for selecting me for The Spirit of Excellence Award. I have attended these luncheons for many years, and each time I leave feeling both inspired and challenged at the same time, having so admired the previous and current recipients of this award. They have truly made a positive dent in the universe.

I would like to recognize my mother, Cuban born; my wife, whose family comes from Lithuania; and my children, grandchildren, family, friends and partners, who are here with me today. Thank you for your support and time spent instilling in me the values that make today possible.

Standing here, I can actually feel the spirit that exists in this room that comes from each of your efforts over the years – the spirit that lifts us all to strive for excellence.

You cannot turn on the television, read the newspaper or a website, or have a conversation without talking about what is going on in the United States and around the world and how it is affecting millions and millions of people.

Talking about millions of people in some ways is easier than talking about someone’s personal life experience, which I would like to do today. Sharing my own family’s experience is a way of viewing what is going on through a real and personal lens and how even a single act can affect generations of a family like mine.

I want to begin my family’s story in 1904 with my great grandfather who lived in a small Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine called Lekavich near Babi Yar where tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in World War II by the Nazis.

My great grandfather was a rabbi, as were generations before him. Since this was before television and the internet, he had many children. The Russian Army was grabbing anyone in sight to fight in World War I, particularly Jews. My grandfather’s eldest brother was able to escape to the United States where he was welcomed. The next family members ultimately joined him. However, when my grandfather tried to join his family, the rules had changed, almost overnight, and he was not allowed to come to the United States. Sound familiar? Instead, he had to go to Cuba where the rest of the family joined him and my mother was born. I liked to believe that since he couldn’t speak English or Spanish he thought he was in Detroit. By the time he realized he was in Cuba he had already had a push cart selling ice cream and neck ties. He became the first to start the long Zack tradition of getting on the wrong boat!

He was very successful and prospered and helped build a strong Jewish community in Cuba, and a synagogue that is still there today called Patronato, which many of you visited or I hope will visit. My mother was sent to college in the United States where she and Desi Arnaz were the only two Cubans in the United States in 1945. There she met my father, they fell in love, were married, and they split their time between the United States and Cuba.

In Cuba, we were comfortable speaking Spanish or English and being Jewish. But then, overnight, it all changed. After Fidel’s revolution, we could no longer speak English on the streets and we knew our time there was limited. Sound familiar?

The Cuban Constitution, which was very similar to the American Constitution at that time, was supposed to protect us. But it did not. Sound familiar?

The loss of liberty in my lifetime is not a theoretical exercise, having endured it in Cuba. One morning in July of 1961 we were told that the military had confiscated my grandfather’s factories. We immediately left for the airport with only the clothes on our back where we were forced to enter a large glass room to wait to leave the country. Since my father was American and my mom had been naturalized, and my brother and sister and I had American passports, we did not expect what happened next.

Our names were called and we were separated from one another. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us or if we were going to see our family again. Sound familiar? This is the same thing that happened to many people last week. No one told us what the charge was or what was going to happen to us. I was placed in solitary confinement until the next morning, which felt like the longest night of my life. Each minute seemed an eternity. I believe I decided to be a lawyer that night.

The next morning, I rejoined my family and we were taken back to our home where we were put under house arrest. We were ultimately able to leave several weeks later.

I remember the moment I landed in Miami with the other refugees and everyone applauding because we were in the United States.

Miami in 1961 was a sleepy southern town with southern attitudes and tensions, but it became a good example of how we can and must live together. I was privileged to speak both English and Spanish without an accent, but many of my friends had heavy accents. I personally witnessed a judge telling my good friend in court to come back when he could speak English.

The Cuban American Bar Association was later formed and today we have one of the largest annual gatherings of our community which no judge would fail to attend, particularly since so many have been appointed and elected were immigrants or who came from immigrant families.

In 1989, I was elected president of The Florida Bar, and later in 2010, I was elected president of the American Bar Association. In 1989, I established a committee to focus on equal opportunities in the legal profession. I recently read the committee’s final report only to realize how little has changed. During my ABA presidency, I established the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities which conducted hearings around the country and produced a report entitled, “Latinos in the United States: ‘Overcoming Legal Obstacles, Engaging in Civic Life,’” which is available online and I encourage you to read.

My grandfather would tell me the story with tears in his eyes of how in Cuba they could see the lights of the St. Louis – “The Ship of the Dammed” – from the shore. The passengers were Jews from Germany who would be killed if they returned, but the United States and Cuba refused to allow them to land. Sound familiar?

In 1964, President John F. Kennedy wrote a book, A Nation of Immigrants, where he quoted George Washington – that’s how long this discussion has been going on: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”

In closing, I remember my grandfather and the day we left Cuba. I asked him how he was feeling, and he was obviously very sad that all he had worked for was taken away, but he said he was very happy about one thing, which I thought was very strange, so I asked, “What could that be grandpa?” And he said to me he’d been a refugee twice but he knew that he would not be a refugee again because if the United States fell, there would be no other place so go. So, I dedicate my remarks to my grandfather and in his honor I renew my commitment to the spirit of excellence and diversity.

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Published: February 24th, 2017

Category: Alumni, News

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