A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.May 31st, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Activism, Journalism & Law, Politics, Social Sciences
1928-1998 A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., was an influential judge, legal scholar, and university professor He was a leader in the fight for civil rights and the author of important studies on the sociology of race.
Higginbotham was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on February 25, 1928, to Aloysius Leon Higginbotham, Sr., a factory laborer, and Emma Lee Douglass, a domestic worker. He was the first student at his small, all-black grammar school to be promoted to the traditionally all-white academic track at Ewing Park High School. Higginbotham proved to be a top student, the beneficiary of considerable extracurricular academic support provided by his mother, including private tutors the family could scarcely afford. Later, he recalled what a struggle it was to escape the discrimination and poverty of his neighborhood.
At age 16, Higginbotham entered Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He planned to pursue a major in engineering, but left at the end of his second year when the school denied him and several other black students the opportunity to live on campus among the white students. After transferring to the more tolerant atmosphere of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Higginbotham resolved to become a lawyer and devote his life to fighting racial injustice. While in school, he married Jeanne Foster with whom he would have three children (though they eventually divorced). Higginbotham compiled a superb academic record at Antioch, and received his B.A. in 1949. Yale University Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, accepted him as a candidate for a law degree, and he graduated with high honors in 1952.
Ready to pursue a career, Higginbotham settled in Philadelphia. He secured a series of interviews at the major law firms, but as he later recalled, he was greeted only with “an icy silence.” He eventually became a law clerk to Justice Curtis Bok of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and then moved into a position as assistant district attorney for the county. After two years, Higginbotham was able to fulfill his ambition of securing a job with a Philadelphia law firm when he and another lawyer, a childhood friend from Trenton, founded their own firm in 1954. After merging with another pioneering black practice, the firm of Norris, Green, Harris & Higginbotham served as the base from which he practiced law for the next eight years. He immersed himself in the civil rights struggle in Philadelphia, and became head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Higginbotham also served on the state’s Human Relations Commission. In 1956, he earned an important statewide political position when he was named Special Deputy Attorney General for Pennsylvania.
During the administration of President John E Kennedy, beginning in 1960, Higginbotham became increasingly involved with the federal government. Through 1962, he served as an administrative hearing judge on applications for conscientious objector status within the Department of Justice. That same year, Kennedy named Higginbotham to the Federal Trade Commission, making him the first African American to sit on the powerful board. Late in 1963, Kennedy nominated him to the Federal District Court in Pennsylvania. Although Kennedy was assassinated soon afterward, Higginbotham was confirmed under the president’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who put his personal and political weight behind the Civil Rights Movement. Higginbotham remained on the Federal District Court until 1977 when then-President Jimmy Carter elevated him to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. In 1989, he assumed the position of Chief Judge of the Court.
Federal appellate court judgeships carry a heavy workload and demand a great deal of responsibility and attention to detail. Nonetheless, Higginbotham lived a full professional life outside the court. He earned a reputation as a respected legal scholar, and published more than 100 articles in various law journals over the course of his career. Higginbotham served as a university professor, not only in the field of law but also in sociology, where he conducted careful studies of race and color. He wrote two highly regarded books, In the Matter of Color—Race and American Legal Process in the Colonial Period published in 1978, and Shades of Freedom published in 1996.
Politically active throughout his life, Higginbotham served as an advisor to local, state, and national elected leaders, including several presidents. On retirement from the federal bench in 1993, he and his second wife, historian of African American history Evelyn Brooks, were lured to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where both held distinguished professorships. At various times during his career, he also lectured at New York University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and Yale. In his later years, he was a senior advisor to a major New York and Washington law firm.
Higginbotham was a lifelong Democrat, an outspoken liberal, and a steadfast opponent of racism and discrimination. The author of hundreds of legal opinions, he was known for meticulous scholarship and judicious temperament. In 1991, however, he generated significant public controversy when he wrote an open letter to newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, castigating him for taking positions that in Higginbotham’s view, undermined the Civil Rights Movement that had opened the way for Thomas to reach the position from which he was speaking. Active to the very end of his life, he died at age 70 on December 14, 1998, in Cambridge.
Many dignitaries attended Higginbotham’s funeral including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and civil rights hero Rosa Parks. President Bill Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela sent tributes. A former student eulogized him as a “force of nature.” During his career, and in appreciation for his great civil rights efforts, Higginbotham was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.