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Attorney Percy L. Julian, Jr.: Leader and Trailblazing Advocate

Each February, we recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. American history, and its challenges and progress, is interwoven with Black history and its resilience and triumphs. As we honor the legacies of current and past Black Americans in the law, this year, we remember and celebrate a monumental leader and trailblazing activist who had a profound impact in Madison and beyond, Percy L. Julian Jr. (19402008).

Percy L. Julian, Jr. was born in Chicago in 1940 to Dr. Anna Roselle and renowned chemist Dr. Percy L. Julian, who is remembered as one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century. Julian’s family moved to Oak Park, Illinois in 1950, where local white people lit the Julian’s home on fire and later firebombed it in an effort to force the family out of the neighborhood. The Julians refused to leave, but they were still regularly terrorized and discriminated against by their white neighbors. Julian ultimately went on to study political science at Oberlin College in Ohio prior to attending the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he graduated with his J.D. in 1966

One of Julian’s first cases after law school was representing a group of UW students who alleged that the university was limiting their right to protest Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm, during the Vietnam War. From 1963 to 1973, 388,000 tons of napalm were dropped on Vietnam’s citizens. One of the student protestors that Julian represented was Paul Soglin, who would later serve as Madison’s mayor for more than two decades. According to Trevor Jensen at the Chicago Tribune, Soglin said, Percy started out with the premise that if the government was doing something, it was probably infringing on three or four of your constitutional rights…and he was usually right.” Julian ultimately secured a victory for the students, strengthening the right of UW students to protest. This legacy remains as important today as it was back in 1967, as UW students continue their activism by protesting against racism and human rights violations. 

Julian’s legal work also extended outside of the Madison area. He regularly litigated employment discrimination and voting rights cases across the U.S. with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In the mid-1970s, Julian was key to desegregating schools in Springfield, Illinois. Julian also fought for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, a fight that continues to this day. Julian also taught housing discrimination law at the National Fair Housing Academy in Washington, D.C. as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Julian passed away in 2008 in Madison. Described as a trailblazer and quiet giant” in the legal field, Julian’s legacy of fighting for civil rights lives on not only in Madison but around the nation. 

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