In this area few men’s mere presence has impacted the public image of African American lawyers, as did the late State Appellate Court Justice Clinton White. An Oakland resident, and native of Sacramento, he was the voice of the African American legal community, long before he became first an Alameda County Superior Court Judge in 1977 and later a State Appellate Court Justice. Although, others were fighting aggressively for racial equality within the judicial system, no one fought for African Americans like he did. In the tradition of national civil rights lawyers, like Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, Clint White, as he was known before becoming a judge, viewed the law as an instrument to achieve social justice. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, he was the consummate lonely warrior representing African Americans in courtrooms where the odds were perpetually stacked against them.
For decades Clint White was a strident voice for African Americans in the criminal justice system. He offered a unique form of social commentary explaining to jurors or to anyone who would listen that the criminal justice system was biased against African Americans and that African Americans were entitled to justice free of racism and bigotry. Before it was fashionable, he strenuously railed against the process that allowed for the exclusion of blacks from juries. By the sheer force of his personality and superb lawyering skills he demanded that African American attorneys be treated with respect and above all he aggressively challenged racist assumptions that contaminated the entire judicial system, including prosecutors, judges, police officers and even defense attorneys.
As a physically imposing and proud man with a rich baritone voice, he demanded respect for himself and his clients. As such he, more than any lawyer of his generation, changed the perception of African American lawyers. During a time when the radio and television minstrel show, Amos and Andy depicted African American lawyers, as shallow, footshuffling, and unprepared, Clint White was the antithesis of that image. His cross-examination was legendary and his fund of knowledge about the plight of African Americans was a daily history lesson. For every aspiring lawyer, myself included, he was the model, the personification of an African American lawyer. He taught us that as the best and brightest each case presents a unique opportunity to educate and challenge. He was the classic life long teacher without a classroom and his legacy will be the hundreds among us who listened and who are committed to keeping his faith by fighting for social justice.
So as the African American community mourns the passing of this courtroom giant and social engineer those beyond the black community should know that aside from the Martin Luther Kings or Malcolm Xs, there were others of their generation who also felt the pain of discrimination and used their professional skills to bring about social change. Clint White was such a man and because of his commitment and life long contributions, the judicial system in Northern California has been enriched and the image of African American lawyers has changed for the good, forever.
Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris is author of “Blue vs. Blue: Let’s End the Conflict Between Cops and Minorities,” 1999, St. Martin’s Press.