Dallas Loses Icon in Legal Community
Judge Louis A. Bedford, Jr. Passed Away on April 10, 2014
In 1990, when Bedford was 64 years old, he wrote an imaginative, thoughtful article for Headnotes, describing what he would say about his life when he no longer was able to “stand before the bar.” (Perhaps he was too young to write his reminiscences, but during his lifetime so many dramatic changes had taken place that it must have seemed to him that he was already very old.) There had been joys but also tribulations in his own practice, he wrote, and the tribulations left the deepest and most lasting impressions.
His central theme was the debt he felt he owed to the African American lawyers who had inspired him through their courageous work and made it possible for him and others to have a legal career.
When Bedford’s career at last was over, he wrote, he would “walk slowly away, my sun setting in my heart, I will be watching the sun rise as I see young African American lawyers taking my place before the Bar.” [Taken from Quest for Justice by Darwin Payne]
Headnotes, November 1990
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, and all I have are memories of times long past, I will tell to all who will listen of my tribulations and joys.
I will recall the beginning, not expecting anything, yet expecting everything. I had the feeling that I was trodding new paths which many are to follow. Perhaps I was to become a new Moses in a new land infested by old prejudices and hatred. I will speak of Judges who knew not the meaning of justice, and being surrounded by a sea of whiteness that covered the courthouse, except for janitors who were invisible.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will tell all who will listen of those Comets, dedicated intense, and brilliant, who illuminated the legal sky for all seeking justice and equality from a hostile and racist legal system.
I will speak of men who maintained their dignity and never lost their pride, whose eloquence with words and knowledge of the law could never be denied. I will recall J.L. Turner, Sr., a very small man of stature, but stood as tall as a giant when he walked into the Dallas County courthouse in 1896, and proclaimed to all that he would practice law and protect the property rights of his people. I will ask those who will listen to imagine the pain, humiliation, bias, and injustice he must have endured. Also imaging the courage, boldness, and Mr. Turner’s ability to overcome fear and apprehension in the hostile environment existing in the halls of justice of Dallas County, in the year of 1896, almost a hundred years ago.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will speak in awe and with reverence of W.J. Durham, my leader, my idol and mentor. I may be shocked and saddened that so few African American lawyers recognize his name, and that he may not be known or remembered by a people who received the bounty of his labor and wisdom. Durham, an emancipator, removed so many legal shackles from our arms and legs.
I will speak of Durham’s dedication and total commitment to equal justice under the law. He had the ability to transform the hostile environment which existed in most courtrooms to an impartial and equitable setting. Durham was an outstanding trial lawyer and often received favorable verdicts for African Americans from all white juries when the opposing party and attorney were white.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will tell all who will listen of my big brothers, J.L. Turner, Jr. and C.B. Bunkley, Jr., and how they walked with and guided me along the way. J.L. Turner, Jr., affectionately known as Brother Turner, was a scholar, philosopher, quite, dignified, reliable, a true friend, and a son who held his father, J. L. Turner, Sr., in high esteem. I will speak of C.B. Bunkley, Jr., who was one of my dearest and closest friends. I will speak of his ability to make impromptu speeches which would stir the souls of those who heard him. A gentleman, he was, yet bold, aggressive, and unyielding in and out of the courtroom when fighting against inequities and the right to be treated with respect. C.B. Bunkley, Jr., was a devoted family man with deep moral and religious convictions, and a servant of his community.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will speak of the decades of the 50s and 60s. In the 50s, African American lawyers were subjected to retaliation for representing and participating in civil rights suits. The threat of barratry and disbarment where ever present for those who sought equality by attacking unjust laws. The times were hostile and sometime scary, yet it was a most rewarding time. The friendships, caring, and trust that existed among the few of us could never be understood by those who will hear my words.
I will tell of the 60s and the fire that swept over the college campuses. Young men and women burning with desire to become first class citizens in their lifetime. I will tell all who will listen about the students who attended Wiley and Bishop Colleges, both then located in Marshall, a small East Texas town. I will speak in reverence, with tears in my eyes, of Romeo Williams, my friend and fellow lawyer, and Mattie Mae Ella Johnson, a student at Bishop, both of whom lost their lives in a tragic accident shortly after leaving the Harrison County Courthouse. I will always remember with pride and respect those students who faced the criminal justice system, physical abuse, and possible death for the cause of justice and equality.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will tell all who will listen that no accumulation of wealth can bring the joy and satisfaction that one receives by knowing that his efforts helped to loosen the legal shackles which we as a people have borne for more than 300 years. Having made that statement, some of the young listeners may become inquisitive and inquire about my earnings during my early years. I will tell them that I earned less than $2,000 my first year of practice. During my early years, African American lawyers received no Court appointments from the Civil or Criminal benches; therefore, we were deprived of fees generated from such appointments. Only white lawyers, some with considerably less experience and ability, were appointed as Ad Litems and to represent indigent defendants. Needless to say, neither the public nor private sector, regardless of one’s qualification, engaged the services of African American lawyers. If my listeners may ask how I survived during my early years, I will tell them that I was sustained by faith, family and friends.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will tell all who will listen not to forget the lessons of History. And as I would speak, there would be those listeners who will say, “Old man, it can’t happen now.” “This is the United States of America,” or “As long as you have money you have nothing to worry about.” I will remind the listeners that there were many wealthy Jews in Germany, but wealth didn’t save them from the political system of Adolph Hitler which led to the death and enslavement of millions of Jews. I will remind my listeners that hate clusters flourish in these United States spreading their venom throughout the land. To those who cry out that it can’t happen here, I will remind that that it has happened before, and it can happen again, yes in these United States. In 1942, native born citizens, who happened to have been of Japanese ancestry, were denied their basic constitutional rights, their property was taken without due process of law, and they were placed in concentration camps for the duration of World War II. I will also remind my listeners that no person of German or Italian ancestry, native born, naturalized or unnaturalized, suffered the denial of their basic constitutional rights. I will ask if racism triumphed over the Constitution.
When I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will tell all who will listen of my comrades, Fred Finch, Joseph E. Lockridge, and E. Brice Cunningham, who joined hands with me as I walked along the way. Some rested during the pilgrimage, but I have fond memories of each who accompanied me along the way.
I will tell my listeners that Fred and I had so much in common. We both were born and reared in Dallas, attended the same elementary and high schools. Fred often spoke with pride of his Alma Mater, Wiley College, a small African American Methodist institution located in Marshall, Texas. Some may consider it strange that Fred, a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School, never mentioned it. I will tell my listeners the four years Fred attended Washington High School and the first year I attended a school day consisted of a mere four hours. Because Washington was over-crowded, Juniors and Seniors attended from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and Freshmen and Sophomores attended from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. I will also tell my listeners that there was no eighth grade for African American students at that time. Washington High had no gymnasium. None of those conditions existed in the white schools of Dallas. Hopefully, my listeners will understand why the theory of separate but equal was a legal farce.
I will tell my listeners that Joseph E. Lockridge had a more promising future than any of us. He was the President of the 1960 graduating Howard University Law School. Not since the reconstruction period had an African American served in the Texas State Legislature and Joe was among the first to do so. Joe was the first African American from Dallas County to be elected to the State Legislature where he was voted by his colleagues as the most outstanding freshman Legislature. For a period of time I was haunted by the memory that Joe asked me to accompany him to Prairie View University where he had been invited to speak. Joe said, “If you go with me I will drive, if you don’t, I guess I will fly.” I didn’t go. Joe flew and died when his plane crashed. I cried.
After thirty years, E. Brice Cunningham still walks with me. He is the last of a breed who can try any type of case, Civil or Criminal, in either State or Federal Court, and give a credible performance. Brice stepped into Durham’s shoes and traveled over the State trying cases which resulted in single member districts, desegregation of public schools and equal employment opportunities.
Finally, when I become an old lawyer and can no longer stand before the bar, I will walk slowly away, my sun setting, but in my heart, I will be watching the sun rise as I see young African American lawyers taking my place before the Bar.