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May 2013 Bar Bulletin

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A Profile in Courage - Carl Maxey (1924-1997)

By Richard Mitchell


Recent national events have caused me to reflect on the many courageous individuals who have inspired me to look beyond my own concerns and to take action with the greater good in mind. Some have been mentors, elected officials, spiritual leaders or teachers. Others I have observed from afar or even studied. For me, all of them have possessed a defining quality.

They have overcome personal and professional obstacles to champion unpopular causes and represent individuals and communities others would not, or they have pursued policy reform on a range of challenging issues at both a micro and macro level. Many of these courageous individuals, these leaders, have taken on causes fully aware of the personal and professional repercussions involved. And in so doing, their families have sometimes suffered surely as their communities have benefited. These leaders have continuously breathed life into the saying, "One person with courage makes a majority."

Such a person, Spokane's first African-American lawyer, was Carl Maxey. As the undisputed civil rights champion in Eastern Washington, he passed away, at the age of 73, on June 23, 1997. But his lifelong work, and the courage he displayed pursuing that work, still reverberates within our state bar association.

Maxey's work first came to my attention in 2005, as I reviewed an old extradition file in the Washington Governor's Office. I had a troubling extradition request to evaluate myself and wanted to see how similar cases had been handled. As I explained my challenge to a colleague, she said, "Find the Maxey case from the early '60s." So off I went, looking for the "Maxey case." As I thumbed through Will Cauthen's 1963 extradition file, trying to discern who the lawyer was, I could not help but feel awed by the tenacity and spirit of the lawyer who represented Cauthen. It was Carl Maxey.

In 1959, Will Cauthen, an African-American, was convicted in Georgia of murdering a Caucasian gas-station attendant. Just before Cauthen was scheduled to be executed, he escaped from prison, fled the state, and hid out as a farmhand near Warden, Washington. Three years later, the FBI tracked Cauthen down and arrested him in 1963. Georgia sought extradition. Maxey took the case and represented Cauthen during the extradition process.

The file was gripping reading. Maxey uncovered that Cauthen was convicted of murder at a trial that lasted only a few hours, with no direct evidence, where no African-Americans were allowed on the jury, and where Cauthen's lawyer had appeared in his first, and only, trial. Maxey himself referred to the trial as a "perfunctory execution." Needless to say, following Maxey's presentation of the basis for Cauthen's conviction, Gov. Albert Rossellini (1910-2011) denied Georgia's extradition request, and Cauthen's life was spared. I think I read the file in one sitting, and sat quietly for some time after finishing it.

After a couple of years of what seemed like an endless tide of extradition requests, I had almost forgotten the Cauthen case, and the work of the lawyer who represented him, when in 2007 a Spokane lawyer called me to discuss Carl Maxey. At the time, according to this lawyer, many Washington lawyers were keen on petitioning the Washington State Bar Association to rename its Courageous Award after Carl Maxey. Having read the Cauthen case, I thought it was a great idea and asked to stay connected with the efforts. Regrettably, time passed and I lost track of those interested in petitioning for the name change to the award. But those early discussions and my discovery of the unbridled courage that typified Maxey's life and many years of practice earned my enduring respect.

Born to a single mother in Tacoma on June 23, 1924, Maxey was adopted as an infant and brought to Spokane by Carl and Caroline Maxey. At the age of two, after his adoptive father disappeared and his adoptive mother died, Maxey was orphaned and living at the Spokane Children's Home. By the time he was 12, the orphanage decided that it no longer wanted colored children in residence, kicking Maxey and another colored child out. The October 8, 1936 minutes of the Spokane Children's Home could not have been clearer:

It was moved and seconded that the two colored boys, Carl Maxey and Milton Burnes, be returned to the County, having been in the Home for years. Motion carried. It was moved and seconded that the Board go on record as voting to have no more colored children in the Home from this time forward. Motion carried-unanimous.

With no other place to go, and despite having no behavioral issues that warranted his subsequent treatment, Maxey ended up at the Spokane Juvenile Home. A Jesuit priest, the Rev. Cornelius Byrne, discovered him there and moved Maxey to the Sacred Heart Indian Mission in Idaho.

After learning about Maxey's early years, it is not hard for me to imagine how such an inauspicious beginning steeled a determined spirit within him. After attending Gonzaga Preparatory School, where he earned letters in football, basketball and track, he joined the Army and served as a medic. He then went on to and graduated from the University of Oregon, won the 1950 NCAA lightweight boxing championship, and graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law in 1951. The first African-American from Eastern Washington to pass the Washington bar exam, he began practicing law in Spokane at a time when Spokane did not have a single African-American doctor, dentist, mail carrier or teacher.

From the early days of his career, and throughout his four decades in practice, Maxey focused on advocating for those in need. He started by taking cases representing indigent defendants for $10 per day, and quickly found himself taking on police, prosecutors and local government officials. He led rallies protesting the Bon Marche's refusal to employ African-Americans as cashiers. On four occasions, he debated James S. Black, the president of the Washington Association of Realtors, on the issue of housing segregation in the 1950s.

He filed numerous cases in the 1960s against the then-ubiquitous Spokane social clubs that almost universally barred minority members, but were the largest employers of African-Americans. He traveled with other lawyers to Mississippi in 1964 to join the fight for civil rights after civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were lynched by white Mississippians.

He successfully sued the Spokane School District after it refused to hire Eugene Breckenridge, and helped him become the first African-American teacher in the district. Breckenridge later became the president of the Washington Education Association. Maxey sued a Spokane barber who refused to cut a black man's hair. He sued the City of Spokane for conducting closed City Council meetings. He sued city officials for refusing to broadcast the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight on closed-circuit television.

He successfully represented conscientious objectors who opposed the war in Vietnam and obtained a reversal of a conviction of a Gonzaga University student leader who yelled "war monger" at then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. He represented the "Seattle 7," a group of activists accused of conspiring to destroy public property and overthrow the government in protest of the Vietnam War. He defended Ruth Coe, who in 1987 was charged with soliciting the murder of a Superior Court judge and a Spokane County prosecutor. To those who knew him, Maxey took on cases others would not touch, entered fights he knew he would likely lose, and argued for the rights of others when most would not.

He also immersed himself in politics and public service: challenging Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1970 for the U.S. Senate; running in 1976 as the vice-presidential candidate on an independent ticket with Eugene McCarthy; serving as a Democratic Party Convention delegate in 1988 for the Rev. Jesse Jackson; co-founding the Loren Miller Bar Association; and contending for appointment to the Washington Supreme Court (the position was conferred on the Hon. Charles Z. Smith). As the second recipient in 1988 of the Legal Foundation of Washington's Charles A. Goldmark Distinguished Service Award (Charles A. Goldmark received the first award posthumously), Maxey's dedication and unrelenting efforts to ensure equal access to justice have been recognized, but his courage has not.

In 1997, Maxey left his family, his community and our bar association too soon. For those who experienced his force of character, his lawyering skills and his willingness to lead in the breach, his courage in life and work is unquestioned. The manner of his death left us asking many questions. Whatever the reasons were for taking his own life, he kept them to himself, and left us with the memory of his life's work.

Without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men ... have lived. The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must-in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures-and that is the basis of all human morality.... In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience-the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men-each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient-they can teach, they can offer hope, and they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.

Carl Maxey left us with the knowledge that one man, one courageous person, can make a difference. That is why, for me, and I dare say countless other Washington lawyers, Carl Maxey is synonymous with courage!

Richard Mitchell expresses his thanks to James A. Andrus, KCBA past-president (2009-2010) and Loren Miller Bar Association past-president (2003-2004), for his review of an earlier version of this article.

1 Kennedy, J.F., Profiles in Courage, New York: Harper Collins (1955).


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