Higginbotham, A(loysius) Leon, Jr.

Higginbotham, A(loysius) Leon, Jr. (1928-1998), African American federal judge, scholar, and civil rights advocate.

Born and raised in segregated Trenton, New Jersey, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. attended Purdue University in Indiana to study engineering. There, Higginbotham objected to the segregated conditions for African Americans, particularly the unheated attic space that served as the dormitory for black students. Convinced by the university president that Purdue intended to remain segregated, Higginbotham transferred to Antioch College in Ohio, from which he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1949. He entered Yale Law School in 1950. That same year, he witnessed future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argue the landmark Sweatt v. Painter school desegregation case, which inspired Higginbotham to use the courts to advance the rights of minorities.

After graduating from Yale in 1952, Higginbotham worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in private practice and as an assistant district attorney. He also served as president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). United States president John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Federal Trade Commission in 1962, making Higginbotham the first African American—and youngest person—to serve as a commissioner of a federal regulatory commission. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him a federal district court judge. President Jimmy Carter elevated him to the Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in 1977, and in 1989, Higginbotham became the chief judge of that court. During his time on the bench, Higginbotham earned a reputation as a liberal jurist who believed that the law could be used to institute social justice for minorities.

Often referring to himself as a "survivor of segregation," Higginbotham grew increasingly opposed to the conservative trend in U.S. politics during the 1980s and 1990s, which he believed reversed many of the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In response to this trend, he retired from the bench in 1993, stating that he sought to narrowly focus his legal practice and scholarly publishing to a few key social issues, including racism and the plight of the disadvantaged. He began teaching at Harvard University and practicing law in New York and Washington, D.C. In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1996 he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.

Higginbotham continued to write, often criticizing conservative policies that led to scaled-back social services and that sought to eliminate affirmative action programs in education and employment. For Higginbotham, the symbol of this conservative trend was the appointment in 1991 of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court seat that had been vacated by Thurgood Marshall. In response, Higginbotham made public objection, both to Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court and later to his appearance as a speaker at the convention of the National Bar Association.

In addition to publishing more than 100 scholarly legal articles, Higginbotham undertook a four-volume series of books on race and American law. By the time of his death in December 1998, he had completed two volumes of the series, In the Matter of Color (1978) and Shades of Freedom (1996).

 

Contributed By:
Robert Fay