Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

Since Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day I thought it would be nice to highlight another important civil rights leader, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. This excerpt comes from The Oxford African American Studies Center. It was written by Edward L. Jr. Lach and published in the African American National Biography.  In celebration of next week’s Inauguration and in commemoration of Black History Month in February, the Oxford African American Studies Center is available to the public for free until March 1st.  Visit here for instructions on how to login or use username:barackobama, password:president.

A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., jurist and civil rights leader, was born Aloysius Leon Higginbotham in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Aloysius Leon Higginbotham Sr. , a laborer, and Emma Lee Douglass , a domestic worker. While he was attending a racially segregated elementary school, his mother insisted that he receive tutoring in Latin, a required subject denied to black students; he then became the first African American to enroll at Trenton’s Central High School. Initially interested in engineering, he enrolled at Purdue University only to leave in disgust after the school’s president denied his request to move on-campus with his fellow African American students. He completed his undergraduate education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he received a BA in Sociology in 1949 . In August 1948 he married Jeanne L. Foster ; the couple had three children. Angered by his experiences at Purdue and inspired by the example of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall , Higginbotham decided to pursue a legal career. He attended law school at Yale and graduated with an LLB in 1952 .

Although Higginbotham was an honors student at Yale, he encountered racial prejudice when he tried to find employment at leading Philadelphia, law firms. After switching his sights to the public sector, he began his career as a clerk for the Court of Common Pleas judge Curtis Bok in 1952 . Higginbotham then served for a year as an assistant district attorney under the future Philadelphia mayor and fellow Yale graduate Richardson Dilworth . In 1954 he became a principal in the new African American law firm of Norris, Green, Harris, and Higginbotham and remained with the firm until 1962 . During the same period he became active in the civil rights movement, serving as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); he was also a member of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Between 1960 and 1962 Higginbotham served as a special hearing officer for conscientious objectors for the United States Department of Justice. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Federal Trade Commission, making him the first African American member of a federal administrative agency. Two years later President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; at age thirty-six, he was the youngest person to be so named in thirty years. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. He became chief judge in 1989 and remained in the position until his retirement in 1993 .

As a member of the federal bench, Higginbotham authored more than 650 opinions. A staunch liberal and tireless defender of programs such as affirmative action, he became equally well known for his legal scholarship, with more than one hundred published articles to his credit. He also published two (out of a planned series of four) highly regarded books that outlined the American struggle toward racial justice and equality through the lens of the legal profession: In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, the Colonial Period ( 1978 ), in which he castigated the founding fathers for their hypocrisy in racial matters, and Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process ( 1996 ).

Higginbotham also taught both law and sociology at a number of schools, including the University of Michigan, Yale, Stanford, and New York University. He enjoyed a long relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, where he was considered for the position of president in 1980 before deciding to remain on the bench. Following his retirement in 1993 , Higginbotham taught at Harvard Law School and also served as public service professor of jurisprudence at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In addition, he served on several corporate boards and worked for the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison in both New York and Washington.

Although most of his career was spent outside the public limelight, Higginbotham came to the forefront of public attention in 1991 when he published an open letter to the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Castigating Thomas for what he viewed as a betrayal of all that he, Higginbotham, had worked for, Higginbotham stated, “I could not find one shred of evidence suggesting an insightful understanding on your part of how the evolutionary movement of the Constitution and the work of civil rights organizations have benefited you.” Although widely criticized for his stance, Higginbotham remained a critic of Thomas’s after he joined the Supreme Court and later attempted to have a speaking invitation to Thomas rescinded by the National Bar Association in 1998 .

In his later years Higginbotham filled a variety of additional roles. He served as an international mediator at the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994 , lent his counsel to the Congressional Black Caucus during a series of voting rights cases before the Supreme Court, and advised Texaco Inc. on diversity and personnel issues when the firm came under fire for alleged racial discrimination in 1996 . In failing health, Higginbotham’s last public service came during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 , when he argued before the House Judiciary Committee that there were degrees of perjury and that President Clinton’s did not qualify as “an impeachable high crime.” The recipient of several honorary degrees, Higginbotham also received the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award ( 1994 ), the Presidential Medal of Freedom ( 1995 ), and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal ( 1996 ). After he and his first wife divorced in 1988 , Higginbotham married Evelyn Brooks, a professor at Harvard, and adopted her daughter. He died in a Boston hospital after suffering a series of strokes.

Although he never served on the Supreme Court, Higginbotham’s impact on the legal community seems certain to continue. A pioneer among African American jurists, he also made solid contributions in the areas of legal scholarship, training, and civil rights.

Recent Comments

  1. […] topic. The Oxford University Press chose to honor Martin Luther King Jr day (last Monday) with an article on another prominent civil rights leader in the United States, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Although Judge Higginbotham was not as well known […]

  2. Murray Simon

    Judge Higgenbotham is a great American, but I don’t believe he was the first Afican American to enroll in Trenton High School My father, Alex Simon graduated from Trenton High in 1928 and had African American classmates. I graduated from Trenton HS in 1963 and the sons of some of my father’s classmates were in my class. They have a collection of yearbooks in the Trenton Public Library on Academy Street and you can probably research this further at that location.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *