At the November 30 Law & Society Luncheon, James Ferguson was awarded the 2017 Ayscue Professionalism Award. The Mecklenburg Bar Foundation's Ayscue Professionalism Award is presented each year to a present or former member(s) of the Mecklenburg County Bar to recognize exemplary professionalism. Criteria may include outstanding service through or on behalf of the Mecklenburg County Bar or the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation for the benefit of the legal community or the community at large; substantial and significant service to the community, to the Bar, or to the justice system, whether on the basis of lifetime contributions or a specific project; and/or embodiment of the traits to which all attorneys should aspire: high ethical standards, model conduct, unquestioned integrity, and consistent competence.
James E. “Fergie” Ferguson II was born into the Jim Crow South in Asheville, NC in 1942. His civil rights career began early in life, when as a student at the all-black junior high school, he began meeting with students from the all-white junior high to discuss issues of race. The group became known as the Greater Asheville Interfaith Group. During that same year, Fergie and his student group formed the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, which worked successfully to help desegregate lunch counters, libraries and other public facilities in Asheville.
After graduating from high school, Fergie enrolled in NC Central University, where he continued his civil rights work in the sit-ins and desegregation efforts in Durham, NC. He received his JD from Columbia University in 1967, after which he joined fellow lawyer Julius Chambers and two others to create North Carolina’s first racially integrated law firm, one of the first in the South.
Just three years out of law school, Fergie prosecuted one of NC’s most well-known criminal trials, which ultimately was the subject of a book and full-length movie “Blood Done Sign My Name.” Three years later, he defended the Wilmington 10, and 40 years later he was successful in gaining pardons of innocence for each of them. In more recent years, Fergie has been successful in obtaining a reduction of the death sentences to life imprisonment for the only four people whose cases were decided under NC’s Racial Justice Act, the only law of its kind in the nation. Throughout his career, Fergie has used his legal skills to desegregate schools, police departments and countless other public and private agencies. He has also successfully represented plaintiffs in a number of wrongful death, medical malpractice and other catastrophic injury cases.
In addition to the demands of his practice, he has taught as a lecturer at Harvard Law School and as an adjunct professor at North Carolina Central University Law School. He was further selected as an Honorary Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Santa Clara University Law School. He has served as president of both the NC Association of Black Lawyers and the NC Association of Trial Lawyers. He also served on the Board and National Executive Committee and as General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union for 12 years. He is a member of the coveted Inner Circle, a group of 100 of the best plaintiff’s lawyers in the country.
In the words of his friends and colleagues, “Fergie’s career has covered the championing of many unpopular causes and clients. In doing so, he has met with resistance and animosity but has not wavered in his moral decency and humanity towards others. This professionalism extends not only to the court and members of the bar, but also to clients, witnesses, law students and community members as well. To deal with Fergie as your adversary is a professional pleasure.” It is for these reasons and many more that we are proud to award James Ferguson the 2016-17 Ayscue Professionalism Award.
Past winners of the Ayscue Professionalism Award include E. Osborne Ayscue Jr., Julius L. Chambers, Russell M. Robinson, II, Joseph W. Grier Jr., Chief Justice Sarah Parker, Ray S. Farris, Peter S. Gilchrist III, Ted Fillette & Ken Schorr, Mark R. Bernstein, Robert C. "Bob" Sink, George V. Hanna III and A. Ward McKeithen.