Carl Maxey, an orphan who became a giant in civil rights, the law, sports and politics in Spokane, died Thursday at his home.
Maxey, who turned 73 on June 23, apparently committed suicide. The attorney was found dead in a bedroom at 6:45 a.m. by his wife, who called police.
The cause of death appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, said police Capt. Steve Braun.
A gun was recovered but no note was found, police said.
Autopsy results and funeral arrangements are pending.
Word of Maxey’s death stunned the community where his name is as well-known as Monroe Street.
He was the poor Spokane kid who fought discrimination and carved out a successful career, despite more obstacles than most of his white friends and neighbors recognize.
After a short but brilliant college boxing career, he went on to fight wrongs in the courtroom and promote civil rights from Spokane to Mississippi.
In the process, he earned a reputation as a flamboyant trial lawyer who took on controversial clients and causes.
He endorsed liberal presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Jesse Jackson, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate himself in 1970.
In his hometown, he supported the NAACP and other minority groups and was the frequent nemesis of the Police Department, prosecutor’s office and local government.
He raised two sons, who went on to practice law with him in an office on West Broadway. The windows there are shuttered at night to protect them from bullets and rocks hurled by his detractors.
Friends and associates, groping to understand his death on Thursday, surmised that Maxey was despondent over the looming prospect of retiring from the practice of law.
“He was gearing down his practice of law, and to see it go was to see his life go, too,” one close associate said.
Some speculated he was having some sort of health problems, but no one could verify those reports.
He had lost weight recently, but those who saw him in the past week said he appeared healthy and happy. He spent most of Wednesday in the office building he shared with his sons, Bill and Bevan.
Shortly after Maxey’s death, Bill and Bevan Maxey arrived at their father’s home near Indian Canyon Golf Course where he lived with his wife, Lou.
The sons and fellow attorney, Mark Vovos, met reporters briefly outside the family home, but didn’t take questions. In a choking voice, Vovos read a statement.
“One of Spokane’s native sons is gone,” the statement said.
“His life’s goal was to have all people - regardless of age, race, creed, sex or economic circumstance - enjoy life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
“It would be his hope that all of us as individuals would do our parts to stand up against injustice and oppression,” the statement concluded.
Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, who came to Spokane last summer to celebrate Maxey’s birthday atop the Ridpath Hotel, his favorite hangout, was deeply saddened.
“The state has lost a true champion,” Rice said. “Carl Maxey’s life symbolized the pursuit of justice and human rights for all people.”
Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty described Maxey as a “larger than life figure in our community.”
Although he often challenged the city and its officials, Maxey “fulfilled a very significant role in Spokane affairs over a period of 40 years,” Geraghty said.
“People either liked Carl or didn’t, but if your back was to the wall, you went to Carl,” Geraghty said.
Many others found it hard to describe their feelings about the loss of a man who went from orphan to boxer to consummate fighter for the underdog, the disenfranchised, the discrimination victim.
“There’s just no words right now to say how many of us feel,” said former Mayor Sheri Barnard. “This is a tragedy for our community and his family.
“Everywhere I go, people are asking, ‘Why?’ He was such a strong man and represented strength for many of us,” Barnard said. “We’re all just baffled.”
Maxey, born out of wedlock in Tacoma, was adopted as an infant and brought to Spokane by Carl and Caroline Maxey. But by the age of 2, he ended up in the Spokane’s Children’s Home where he spent his childhood during the Depression.
In 1936, when he was 12, Maxey and another boy were kicked out of the orphanage, which said it wouldn’t take any more “colored” children.
Maxey, in an interview in April, recalled how he then ended up in the Spokane Juvenile Home, not for criminal conduct, but because there was no one to care for him.
He attended school in the juvenile facility. “I always was a hit at ‘show and tell,”’ he recalled. Those same skills later became his courtroom trademark.
He once sang lines from the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” during his closing argument in a murder trial. He often quoted Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. to juries.
And, sometimes, he’d recall his youth.
As a teen, he was placed at the Sacred Heart Indian Mission, operated by Jesuits and the Rev. Cornelius Byrne in DeSmet, Idaho.
“I haven’t known any fathers in my life,” Maxey said in a 1981 interview, “and I suppose the closest thing I had to one was that Jesuit priest, and Joey August, my boxing coach, and a guy from the Spokane City Club, Ross Houston, who used to be the head waiter.”
Maxey returned to Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep, where he lettered in football, basketball and track. He was hired at the Spokane Club for 25 cents an hour as a busboy. He was promoted to waiter and then to bartender, but bristled at the segregation in the private club, which wouldn’t accept black members.
When World War II broke out, Maxey joined the Army and served as a medic - and resented the segregation in the military.
After the war, he attended the University of Oregon and Gonzaga University, becoming a collegiate boxing standout.
Undefeated in college boxing, Maxey tried out for the 1948 Olympic boxing team, but lost his first bout. Two years later, he won the NCAA light heavyweight boxing championship by defeating the captain of the 1948 Olympic team.
He attended Gonzaga Law School, graduating in 1951. He begged Superior Court judges for work representing poor defendants for $10 a day, paid by the county. Some months in the mid-1950s, he’d make $45.
“My road was a little tougher than the rest of them because I had to educate a community to come to a black professional person,” Maxey once recalled.
Early in his career, he represented a lot of women in contested divorce cases, frequently drawing the ex-spouse’s wrath. Once, a divorcing couple died in a murder-suicide outside his downtown office.
He developed an attitude that hard work is a virtue. “I’ve got a strong work ethic,” he said in 1981, when he was honored for 30 years of legal practice.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement blossomed and the young attorney used his law degree as a springboard to political activism.
With two other lawyers, he traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to join the civil rights fight after a young black man and two Jews from Philadelphia were murdered by racists.
“We were threatened and abused,” Maxey recalled, and called “interlopers and outside agitators.”
He later called his time in Mississippi one of the finest episodes in his life. “It was the first time both black and white worked hand-in-hand as a matter of humanitarian concern - the right to vote and the right to live.”
Fighting for civil rights became his hallmark in Spokane, too.
He sued Spokane public schools after the district refused to hire a black teacher. When a Spokane barber shop wouldn’t cut a black man’s hair, Maxey sued the shop and won. The barber quit.
Later, as the anti-war movement began, Maxey represented conscientious objectors and was one of the community’s first voices of opposition to bloodshed in Vietnam.
A student leader at Gonzaga University was arrested by police for yelling “war monger” at Vice President Spiro Agnew. After the young man was convicted, Maxey saw the case as a free speech issue and got the conviction reversed on appeal.
In another case, he sued the city of Spokane for conducting closed City Council meetings. He also sued and won when city officials refused to broadcast the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight on closed-circuit television at the Coliseum.
He also represented countless drug dealers, murderers and rapists.
About 400 of his friends and acquaintances attended his 72nd birthday party in June 1996 at the Ridpath. The crowd included people of all colors and walks of life - judges, educators, attorneys, political activists, Hells Angels, family and neighbors, a Medal of Honor winner, an Olympic athlete, the mayor of Seattle.
Maxey spoke eloquently and raised a toast, saying the beautiful ice sculpture and his birthday were not as important as the diversity of the people in the room.
“There was a real good cross-section of America there,” Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker recalled Thursday.
“I think that says a heck of a lot about the man who could get us together and remind us of the need for peace and harmony.”
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