Who was Leon Higginbotham? A Philly civil rights pioneer worthy of recognition

On October 18, 1982, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., (right) of Philadelphia is sworn in as a member of the Federal Trade Commission by Supreme Court Justice Byron White (left) and FTC chairman Paul Dixon holds bible. AP Photo

America’s civil rights movement grew slowly, then exploded in the 1950s. The Supreme Court banned segregation of schoolchildren in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Southern governors then said no court could change their segregation laws.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower disagreed. He dispatched troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce the court’s ruling to desegregate schools.

Remind you of our current era? An era when racial and ethnic identity seems to trump legal equality?

It reminds me of Philadelphia’s A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. He was one of the civil rights pioneers and a lawyer of the 1950s. He later became the first African American member of the Federal Trade Commission and a federal judge, and if Mayor-to-be William J. Green III had had his way, he could’ve been the city’s first African American mayor.

Besides Higginbotham’s judgeships and civil rights leadership, he taught at Penn for more than 20 years. A  painting of him is in Penn's Silverman Hall, but there’s nothing public. Not even one of those blue and yellow historic signs names him.

Higginbotham died in 1998. Feb. 25 would’ve been his 89th birthday. He deserves a historic sign. To make a case for a sign honoring him, let’s start at the beginning. 

Racist Purdue

Higginbotham, born in Trenton, while growing up in Ewing learned about race when he was 8 years old, according to historians Clifford Scott Green and Stephanie Franklin-Suber:

“Leon told his father and uncle he wanted to be a fireman. They laughed and said, ‘The Ewing Township fire company’s never going to take a colored boy.’ ” 

He couldn’t be a fireman, but he did become the first student from an all-black grammar school in Trenton to be admitted to the all-white Ewing Park High School. He did so well that he landed at Purdue University in Indiana in 1944.

In the 1920s, Indiana had more Ku Klux Klan members than any other northern state. But the KKK’s influence was shrinking and Higginbotham wanted to major in engineering, Purdue’s best department. He was one of just 12 black students at the university. In Klan Land,  they were segregated from white Purdue students.

The black students were placed in “International House,” which sounds nice but was an unheated attic.

Here’s what Higginbotham told the New York Times many years later:

As fall turned to winter and temperatures plummeted, conditions in the dormitory became almost unbearable. “After December and January, going to bed every night with earmuffs on, sometimes wearing shoes and several pairs of socks, I decided to go and talk to [Purdue] president [Edward C.] Elliott.”

Higginbotham intended to ask for nothing more than rooms in a heated dormitory. Elliott was unmoved.

“If he had communicated to me, with some kind word or gesture, or even a sigh, that I had caused him to review his own commitment to things as they were, I might have felt that I had won a small victory and could go back in the attic and sleep,” Higginbotham said.

The president, however, was adamant.

“Higginbotham,” he said, “the law doesn’t require us to let colored students in the dorm, and you either accept things as they are or leave the university immediately.”

Civil Rights road

Quicky quiz, dear reader. Does Purdue greatly honor Higginbotham today? Or does it honor Elliott? If you guessed Elliott, you are a true American.

I suppose Elliott should be honored, since his action drove Higginbotham from wanting to be an engineer to wanting to be a lawyer who could fight for equal rights. Higginbotham left Purdue for nonracist Antioch College in Ohio, got a B.A., and then went to Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1952.

Higginbotham’s intelligence and hard work made him desirable at top Philadelphia law firms, a Yale graduate told him by phone. They arranged an interview. 

Higginbotham bought a new suit, carried letters of recommendation, and hopped the train to Philly. When he arrived at the law firm to meet the Yale grad, a secretary there was stunned. No one told her, she said, that he was a Negro.

Then she introduced him to the Yale grad lawyer, who apologized and said, “There’s nothing I can do for you.”

Higginbotham left, furious. Then, in the lobby, he broke down in tears. Welcome to Philadelphia, where Major League Baseball’s first African American player, Jackie Robinson, couldn’t get a hotel room with the rest of his Dodgers team.

While there are zillions of bigots, there are a handful of heroes. One of them was Superior Court Judge Curtis Bok, a Quaker who would later be elected to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. He hired Higginbotham as his law clerk in 1952.

A year later, Philadelphia District Attorney Richardson Dilworth hired him as the first black assistant district attorney. Worth noting here is that Dilworth is honored by the park next to City Hall. 

A year after that,  in 1954, Higginbotham became a founding partner in the city’s first big African American law firm, Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham. It became a magnet for civil rights cases, and he became the head of the NAACP’s Philadelphia chapter.

He went higher and higher. President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Federal Trade Commission, the first African American on it, in 1962. A year later, JFK nominated him to U.S. District Court here, and President Lyndon B. Johnson stuck by that, appointing him in 1964 after JFK’s assassination.

In 1970, then-Rep. Green tried to persuade Higginbotham to run for mayor in 1971. A gaggle of liberals and African Americans were mulling the Democratic primary against eventual winner Frank L. Rizzo. Rizzo was a blue-collar guy, a former policeman, and he attracted bigots like bees to honey.

Green liked Higginbotham’s attributes and thought he could beat Rizzo.

“He was an activist for civil rights as well as a well-educated gentleman who was as respected in the street as he was at Penn and Harvard,” Green said this week. “He had both a sense of justice and a sense of history. He was highly qualified and honorably motivated. He would’ve drawn voters across the city. I think he would have won. Stylistically, he was a precursor to Obama. He didn’t scream at people.”

State Sen. Hardy Williams, an African American, ran against Rizzo, as did Green. They lost. Neither would’ve run if Higginbotham had, Green said. 

“Higginbotham, like Obama, had broader appeal. I think he could’ve won,” Green said.

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. agrees.

“If Bill Green endorsed [Higginbotham], no one else would’ve run against Rizzo and I think [Higginbotham] would’ve won,” Goode said this week.

“Leon Higginbotham was an intellectual who used his intellectual gifts to make a case for equality in America,” Goode said. “Through his writing, through his speaking, through his service as president of NAACP, a civic leader, an attorney, and, finally, as a federal judge, he was without question a superior figure in this city. He is someone who should be recognized for his contributions.”

 Goode understands why Higginbotham hasn’t been hailed in the city.

“He was not among [those] marching and demonstrating, like Cecil B. Moore [honored a lot in Philly],” Goode said. Higginbotham “used a pen and his voice. People tend to gravitate to those who have louder voices and confrontation.”

Green ran for mayor again in 1979, and won. Four years later he stepped aside and Goode was elected the city’s first African American mayor.

Philly mentor

Charles L. Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, agrees that the city ought to honor Higginbotham.

“He was prominent in Philadelphia,” Blockson said last week. “He was a mentor to [Opportunities Industrialization Centers founder and civil rights leader] Leon Sullivan, [Pennsylvania Secretary of State and civil rights leader] C. DeLores Tucker, [Anti-Poverty Commission chairman and civil rights leader] Sam Evans, and [the first black woman state Supreme Court justice in America] Juanita Kidd Stout, among many, many others.”

Higginbotham also wrote two books that told the history of slavery and racism, beginning in the 1600s and running through the end of the 20th century. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process 1: The Colonial Period was published in 1978. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions in the American Legal Process was published in 1996.

“His first book was a conduit from the distant past to the present,” Blockson said. “His second was on how race is still a legal factor. When you see how many elected officials have all these laws going backward, it shows how much we need people like Higginbotham.”

Former mayors Green and Goode and Blockson agree Higginbotham is worthy of recognition. The historic sign can be in Center City or maybe in Mount Airy, where Higginbotham lived.

Mayor Kenney, according to his spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, is looking into the possibility of supporting an application for a Higginbotham historic sign.

The irony is that, while there’s no big statue (like Rizzo’s) or street name (like Moore’s),  Higginbotham received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1995. It is the nation’s highest civilian medal.

Blockson shared Higginbotham’s belief that the civil rights fight was not over just because some laws passed. That makes them just like fellow Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin. After the U.S. Constitution was hammered out in 1789, a woman asked Franklin whether we’d end up as a republic or a monarchy.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” he said.

You can keep it only by paying attention and fighting for what’s right. That’s true for democracy and for civil rights. You either fight for them, every year, or they start to sink.

“You can’t give up,” Blockson said. “Higginbotham never gave up. We can never give up. People are people, and we have a need to fight for civil rights, just like we need to fight for democracy.”

Maybe, given how necessary the fight is now, putting a sign up for Higginbotham will remind citizens of our obligations. Don’t be quiet. Write louder. Stay on the case. Higginbotham would like that.

Gar Joseph, Philly Clout founder and former assistant managing editor, can be reached at phillygarrr@gmail.com or @CloutPage on Twitter.