Hill Gathering Honors Longtime Judge’s Legacy
The late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. didn’t just focus on the big fights as he worked to achieve justice and equality for blacks.
From organizing attorneys around one cohesive litigation strategy to combat setbacks in a voting rights case to spending the afternoon mentoring a young student who struggled in grade school, Higginbotham was known for his commitment to helping others at any level.
Civil rights advocates, lawmakers and judges gathered in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday evening to honor Higginbotham’s legacy in celebration of Black History Month. Higginbotham, who died in 1998, was remembered by many as a scholar, jurist and mentor.
Higginbotham served as a federal judge for 30 years, as a member of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. A lifelong scholar and advocate of civil rights, Higginbotham fought for voting rights on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus and taught courses on sociology and race at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I challenge you to find another figure who has lived so many lives so successfully and so well,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) began the evening by presenting a resolution to the Senate commemorating the life of Higginbotham. The passage of the resolution, which was co- sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was followed by a panel discussion led and moderated by Higginbotham’s former colleagues and friends.
“The Bible says, ‘There were giants in the earth in those days.’ Leon Higginbotham was a giant. He stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and towered above most of the rest of us in his intellect, his compassion and his commitment to equality,” Casey said in his floor statement. “Today, those who knew him and worked with him, and those who, like me, admired him from afar, have gathered in our nation’s capital to honor his life and his legacy.”
Higginbotham, who died in 1998, refused to back down from discrimination he faced early in his academic and law career by co-founding the first black law firm in Philadelphia.
“[Higginbotham and his partners] made it so the entire bar knew that African-American attorneys could be superb,” said panel moderator Christopher A. Lewis, a partner at Blank Rome. “We were given an opportunity to practice and achieve in a way that was not provided to them.”
In addition to setting an example for aspiring black lawyers and lawmakers, Higginbotham inspired his colleagues with his advocacy and eloquence.
Norton, who was Higginbotham’s first law clerk, said the judge’s public speaking philosophy made a lasting impression on her.
“[He taught me that] I’ve got to have something in my mind besides the rhetoric of the movement,” Norton said. “I have to have researched facts for persuasion.”
Panelists emphasized Higginbotham’s commitment to opening the door and guiding the way for those who followed him.
“It doesn’t end with what you achieve,” Norton said. “There is always something greater to achieve.”
One of Higginbotham’s greatest goals was to pen a trilogy about race in American politics. Though the first two installments were well-received for their eloquence and insight, the judge intentionally left the project unfinished.
“He said, ‘I am not going to write a third book, because the story isn’t finished. … Your work is going to tell the end of the story,’” recalled panelist Charles Ogletree, an author and scholar on race-related issues.
Morey M. Myers, a law school classmate and longtime friend of the judge, said that if he were alive today, Higginbotham wouldn’t identify the usual suspects, such as climate change, the economy and national defense, as the greatest problems facing future generations.
“In a single word, it’s disparity — the difference between the haves and the have-nots — or, as he would say, the accidentally fortunate and the accidentally unfortunate,” Myers said.
The judge’s wife, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, emphasized the importance of continuing her husband’s commitment to effecting lasting change and promoting freedom and pluralism.
Panelist and civil rights leader Barbara R. Arnwine, who met Higginbotham in the early 1990s, said she is confident that the late judge’s goals will not be forgotten.
“What I love about Judge Higginbotham is that many people have statues, they have monuments. They’re stone, they’re cold; but what he gave to us was an enduring legacy, a living legacy,” she said.