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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The number of Maxeys grows to four, in the office Carl built

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Bevan Maxey, left, poses for a photo with his sons Morgan, right, and Mason, center, who holds a photo of Bevan’s father, Spokane civil rights legend Carl Maxey, last Tuesday. All three Maxeys have followed in Carl’s footsteps to become lawyers.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
In this 1975 photo, Spokane lawyer Carl Maxey is shown at his home with his two sons, Bev (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

As an undergrad, Bevan Maxey didn’t start out thinking he’d go into law.

“I didn’t have a lifelong goal to become a lawyer,” he said last week. “I was originally going to go into communications – maybe sports broadcasting, that type of thing.”

Similarly, when his sons, Morgan and Mason, started college, they were at first intent on pursuing nonlegal careers. Morgan started in engineering at the University of Washington, before switching to English. Mason started out as an undergraduate thinking he might “go the doctor route” or the sciences.

Eventually, though, the pull of the family business – and the family name – called them all.

Bevan, whose father, Carl Maxey, a pioneering Black attorney and a civil-rights giant in Spokane, joined his dad’s practice 37 years ago. Bevan’s older brother, Bill, had done so several years before that.

In this 1975 photo, Spokane lawyer Carl Maxey is shown at his home with his two sons, Bev  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
In this 1975 photo, Spokane lawyer Carl Maxey is shown at his home with his two sons, Bev (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

Morgan, 28, followed in his father’s – and grandfather’s – footsteps in 2017, after graduating from Gonzaga Law. Now Mason, 26, is awaiting his bar membership card, becoming the latest among the three generations of Maxeys to practice law in Spokane.

In the end, they all found themselves drawn by a shared interest in language and literature, communications and civil rights, and a call to serve and to seek justice as represented by their grandfather’s example.

“He spent every waking moment giving us this opportunity and giving our dad this opportunity to advance what he stood for and build on it,” said Mason.

The result is that Maxey Law Offices – which sits on West Broadway down the street from the county courthouse, right where Carl started – is more full of Maxeys than ever before.

For the Maxeys, and for Spokane, the influence of Carl’s life remains indelible.

For Bevan and his wife, Martine – whom he says “deserves most of the credit” – it’s been wonderful to have two of their sons follow him into the firm.

“I’m very proud of them both,” Bevan said. “I’m very happy they’re here with me. I’m not just proud of them because they’re lawyers. I’m proud of them, first, because they’re both good people, talented, respectful young men.”

‘Lack of understanding’

In Spokane legal and civil-rights circles, the names don’t come bigger than Carl Maxey.

Starting from a childhood of privation that his biographer Jim Kershner termed “almost Dickinsensian” Maxey rose to prominence that few attorneys of any color have reached, and was a giant in advancing the causes of civil rights and justice in his community.

He represented Black clients seeking their civil rights – from their ability to get a haircut from a downtown barber to their rights to join a social club. He traveled to Mississippi to work with Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr., defended the Seattle Seven, ran for Senate on an anti-war platform and never shrank from speaking his mind.

Spokane attorney and civil rights legend Carl Maxey is seen working in his office in 1981.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Spokane attorney and civil rights legend Carl Maxey is seen working in his office in 1981. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

As is true of so many civil-rights pioneers who are now revered, he was viewed as controversial in his time – too outspoken, too radical, too focused on race. The same catcalls that followed him then are still sounded today.

“From my experience and the stories I’ve heard from my father and grandfather, it seems like a lack of understanding is behind why people don’t advocate for true equality,” Mason said. “It’s always, ‘We’ll give you this inch.’ ”

Bevan, who was a three-sport star at Lewis and Clark High, grew up close to his father, learning by watching and listening.

“I always had a very good relationship with my father – he was my father and my friend,” he said. “One thing that always amazed me about my father when things became extremely stressful and it seemed like there was no answer and it was out of control, he always stayed calm, boiled it down to the basics and found an answer as to how to move forward. … When the waves seem like they’re crashing against the rocks, keep focused on how to find a path.”

Bevan’s experiences with race and racism were different from his father’s, of course. Still, as a mixed-race kid in Spokane, he attracted his share of comments, whether it was about his hair or something else.

He grew up very aware of the values at the heart of his father’s work – to help the disadvantaged, to be a voice for the voiceless, to defend the rights of others. He said he’s tried to instill those values into his law practice, whether he’s defending someone on a misdemeanor traffic citation or a murder charge – and his sons say those values were instilled in them growing up, too.

“They always made it very important to us to help other people where you can,” Morgan said.

A powerful legacy

Bevan graduated from Washington State and then Gonzaga Law School, joining his father’s practice in 1983. His older brother, Bill, was already working there. Bevan worked alongside his father until Carl took his own life in 1997 at the age of 73.

It was a tragic end to a monumental life – one mourned in Spokane and across the country. The New York Times headlined his obituary in a manner befitting his intense drive and passion for social justice: “Type-A Ghandi.”

His grandsons learned about their grandfather from others all their lives.

“They’ve grown up knowing about their grandfather,” Bevan said. “I wish they’d been able to know him even more.”

Though he’s proud of his two attorney sons, Bevan emphasized he feels the same pride for his third son, Marcus, who is a teacher in Renton.

Though they didn’t know their grandfather personally, Morgan and Mason heard about him continually at home and in the community – stories about his passion and fire, about his commitment to justice, about the help he’d given people in trouble.

“A lot of the stories I’ve heard are through people coming up to me in the grocery store or just telling me stories without me even asking them,” Mason said.

It’s a legacy they’re proud of, though it’s also daunting to have a hero for a grandfather.

At GU Law, where all the Maxey attorneys have studied, a bust of Carl sits in the hall. Mason remembers going to his day-one orientation in law school, thinking he’d keep his family connection quiet.

In minutes, though, one of the first classmates he met to made the connection.

‘Into the fire’

Morgan was closely involved in the diversity and multicultural efforts at GU Law, and he’s bringing that activism to the Spokane Bar Association, for which he works on the diversity section and is helping develop a continuing education course in systemic racism. He hopes that attorneys in the prosecutor’s office will take the course.

He joined the family firm about three years ago, with a specialization in criminal defense and family law.

He said he learned by being “thrown into the fire.”

“My first two cases were murder cases,” he said.

That’s similar to Bevan’s experience learning alongside his father, he said.

“The same thing that happened to (Morgan) happened to me,” he said. “Within the first few months I did a murder case with my dad. Morgan did one with me. Mason might well be doing one in the near future.”

Bevan and Bill manage different parts of the firm’s business. Bill focuses on civil cases and personal injury; he was given the county bar association’s award for professionalism in 2017. Bevan works in family law and criminal defense.

Working alongside his father taught him a lot about the law, Bevan said. And the way their professional and personal lives intertwined – talking over a case while watching a basketball game together, for example – continues today.

Bevan said that work and family life have kept him busy enough that he hasn’t always gotten involved as deeply in causes – something he regrets. His children are committed to working on diversity and anti-racism efforts through the bar association and other avenues.

Meanwhile, the charity founded in their grandfather’s name, the Carl Maxey Center, is moving toward opening its building in East Central, though the pandemic has delayed that work. The center, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of African Americans in Spokane and formed several years ago, is supported by the family, though they did not initiate it, and Mason said he’s looking forward to doing more with the center.

The name and the legacy are more relevant than ever, for the family and the city. Bevan feels sure that if Carl could somehow stop by his old office on West Broadway, he’d be amazed at all the Maxeys carrying his work forward.

“I think he’d be glowing,” Bevan said. “He’d be happy. But if he was still around, he wouldn’t cut them any slack either.”

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