Community feature: Local legends reflect on the law and civil rights

Erica Thompson
U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley (left) and Chief Judge R. Guy Cole, Jr., photo by Tim Johnson

In 1940s Birmingham, Alabama, Center Street represented the color line. African-American families lived on one side of the street, while their white counterparts owned homes on the other. But when African-Americans began crossing over, they were met with resistance in the form of fire, gunshots and even dynamite.

There were so many bombings that took place between the 1940s and 1960s, the city became known as “Bombingham,” and Center Street became “Dynamite Hill.” As a young child living at the top of the street, Chief Judge R. Guy Cole, Jr. experienced some of the effects.

“We had probably three or four cracks in the living room and dining room from the bomb blasts,” said Cole, who now presides over the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio. “They were that powerful.”

Cole, along with Judge Algenon L. Marbley and Squire Patton Boggs managing partner Alex Shumate, will receive the Legends & Legacies award at the King Arts Complex on Thursday, Oct. 4. All three men experienced segregation in the South before attending college and building careers in Ohio.

“One of the things that resonates most with me … is when the desegregation orders came down … they closed the public pool instead of desegregating it,” said Marbley, who grew up in Nashville, North Carolina, and now presides over the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, in Columbus. “So I grew up in a town where there was no public pool of which black kids could avail themselves.”

While Marbley's school was integrated without resistance, there was still division within its walls. “They had co-student body presidents, one black, one white. … We had co-homecoming queens.”

Shumate, based in his law firm's Columbus office, was born in De Kalb, Mississippi, but moved to Sandusky, Ohio, during the Great Migration. However, he returned to white-only signs for restaurants, drinking fountains and restaurants during visits to the South each summer.

Like most African-Americans, the men were influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Cole even crossed paths with the leader at insurance company owner John Drew's house in Birmingham.

“I can't say that I recall any one-on-one contact with him, but he was definitely present as I was one of any number of kids running around inside of the backyard,” Cole said.

Cole, Marbley and Shumate were all teenagers when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and entered college during the ensuing turmoil in America.

“I began to think about what the civil rights lawyers had done in Birmingham,” Cole said. “I thought, ‘I don't want to use a platform as a politician.' I didn't want to be a minister. … I really saw the law as a mechanism for change.”

As judges, Cole and Marbley don't control the cases that arrive in their courts, but they are often tasked with upholding civil rights. For example, in 2008, Marbley presided over Kennedy vs. the City of Zanesville, with the jury finding the predominantly African-American community of Coal Run had been denied water service on the basis of race. The plaintiffs were awarded about $11 million.

As the former assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, Shumate was more hands-on. “We handled cases involving employment, housing and public accommodation,” he said.

All three men have also served the community outside of the legal system, sitting on boards of hospitals, as well as children- and minority-focused organizations.

Having lived through the tumultuous 1960s, they are able to bring a unique perspective to the growing partisan divide in the country today.

“What we are seeing probably is a manifestation of backlash against the country having its first African-American president,” Marbley said. “I think sometimes we have to be reminded that the price of freedom is not cheap, and that we must be forever vigilant in protecting our gains.”

“It's focusing all of us on issues that perhaps didn't get the same degree of focus in the past,” Cole added. “People are coming to realize that an appointment of a justice to a life tenure position on the Supreme Court can make a difference in their daily lives.”

Both judges stressed the importance of voting, remarking that Dr. King would be alarmed and disappointed at the number of people who don't exercise that right.

“I think it would come as some shock to him when you look at how hard he and other civil rights leaders fought,” Cole said.

“Even if you don't think it's going to matter, you should still participate in the process because that's your voice,” Marbley said. “You have forsaken your right to complain if you don't vote.”

King Arts Complex

7-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4

867 Mt. Vernon Ave., King-Lincoln

Legends and Legacies Awards