Seattle attorney Lembhard “Lem” Howell spent a 50-year career championing civil rights. He’s received numerous awards for his legal advocacy, landmark lawsuits to expand employment opportunities for African Americans and for his work to reform the criminal justice system in Washington state.
But Howell, now 83, has never forgotten that the Seafarers International Union awarded him a scholarship in 1955 that allowed him to lay the educational foundation for his future success. Howell’s father, Seafarer Cleveland Howell, a Jamaican immigrant and union activist who worked to integrate SIU, encouraged his son’s academic achievement from an early age. Howell recalls his father pointing to his head and saying, “What you have up here, they can’t take away from you.”
Howell received a four-year, $6,000 union scholarship – about $57,000 in today’s dollars.
Howell said the generous award allowed him to attend the private Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where Howell graduated in 1958 with honors in history.
“Daddy was so proud,” Howell recalls.
So was the union. The Seafarers LOG wrote an article about him when he received the scholarship and again when he was the first in his family to graduate from college. The newspaper even sent a photographer to Easton to document the event.
Howell served four years in the Navy, but his father was impatient. He wanted his son to go to law school. Howell graduated from New York University Law School in 1964 and headed west on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. He interned in the Washington governor’s office, clerked for the state supreme court and served as an assistant attorney general before moving to Seattle to start a private law practice.
As a young Seattle attorney, Howell quickly established a reputation as an advocate for equal opportunity in employment. His lawsuits on behalf of black construction workers opened the state’s trade unions to minority applicants. He also defended the city’s affirmative action program which ensured the promotion of qualified black union firefighters.
Howell’s advocacy on behalf of African American construction workers led to a successful career as a personal injury attorney representing workers killed or injured on the job.
But it was his work challenging police killings of African American men, beginning in 1971 and continuing over the next several decades, often without pay, that made Howell a hero among community members and within the legal field. In an era before cell phone videos and police dash cams, Howell repeatedly challenged the official police versions of fatal shootings and questioned whether the use of force was justified. He advocated for more police accountability and for a greater emphasis on de-escalation techniques rather than the immediate use of deadly force when apprehending criminal suspects.
In 2016, at age 80, Howell received the Outstanding Attorney Award from the King County Bar Association, which cited his “courage and relentless pursuit of justice on behalf of the marginalized and underrepresented.”
Ron Ward, former Washington State Bar president, said Howell’s work led to significant changes to police policies and practices that in turn “improved basic civil rights protections for Washington citizens.”
Cleveland Howell died in 1974, long enough to share in some of his son’s early successes and to have his faith in his potential confirmed.
After his death, Howell found in his father’s wallet two folded copies of the article from the Seafarers LOG.