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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The fight never ends: Carl Maxey’s words still ring true

“This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.” W.E.B. DuBois

Lou Maxey doesn’t like to put words in the mouth of her late husband, Carl Maxey, but Carl, Spokane’s great civil rights leader and first Black lawyer, was known to quote historical and literary figures in and out of the courtroom, and DuBois was in his repertoire. Lou thinks Carl would have found DuBois’ words, spoken in the wake of World War I and the Tulsa race massacre, fitting for this moment.

Carl would have been 96 on Tuesday, and Lou will be toasting him with champagne. She remembers, in the evening, Carl dictating his June 5, 1983 editorial to her.

Lou had not read it in a while, and one sentence stuck out to her: “‘If Ken Sands is fortunate enough to be around five lustrums from now and revisits us with an article on this same subject, the statistics will be just as bad because the people don’t give a damn.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Ken Sands wrote the front page article “Does the system discriminate?” that appeared on May 29, 1983, which Carl was responding to in his op-ed column. The article detailed a number of statistics indicating that Black men in Washington were incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, and described a litany of hurdles that Black defendants face in the criminal justice system. Well past five lustrums (a lustrum is five years), Sands said that, unfortunately, Carl predicted accurately.

“He understood that it was a long struggle, and probably the work would never be over,” said Sands, who now is the general manager of online operations for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lou thinks that Carl would be saddened that there hadn’t been more improvement by 2020, but she also knows Carl would be playing an active role in the protests.

“I’ve been wishing that he was here to help with all of this,” Lou said. “I always think that uprisings like we’re seeing now are a sign of hope. I think that people in the streets means that those people think that there’s still a chance of change in the system. Carl would be working with whatever means it would take to get this reform done.”

In this March 1981 photo, Spokane Lawyer Carl Maxey is shown in his office.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
In this March 1981 photo, Spokane Lawyer Carl Maxey is shown in his office. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive) Buy this photo

Then and now

The spark of the recent protests – the death of George Floyd in police custody – brings to mind a case Carl handled not long after Lou and Carl wed in summer 1974. Craig S. Jordan, a 17-year-old Black Lewis and Clark High School student, was a suspect in a home burglary, and he ran from police. Police officer John D. Moore shouted at him to stop running, and Jordan turned back, and then continued running.

Moore shot Jordan in the back. Moore said he thought the teen was holding a gun, but the object in his hands was a glove. Jordan was handcuffed, taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Because city police was involved in the shooting, it fell to the sheriff’s office to conduct the investigation. Carl said the prosecuting attorney was too closely allied with the police department, and asked for a coroner’s inquest to provide an impartial hearing.

“You can’t allow the police to investigate themselves,” Carl was quoted in news accounts as saying.

Ultimately, with the assistance of public pressure, Carl received the coroner’s inquest, but the county coroner, Lois Shanks, indicated she was not qualified to conduct it.

“As I understand your proposed format for the inquest … the Sheriff’s Department will make a report of its investigation to the prosecuting attorney,” Carl said in an open letter to Shanks. “Everyone there will be representing law enforcement with no one there representing the victim’s family.”

He said conducting the inquest in this manner “is like leaving the lion to guard the Sunday roast.”

The inquest took place when Shanks was at a convention, so the deputy coroner presided, and the inquest was led by the prosecuting attorney, Donald C. Brockett, who brought 21 witnesses. The all-white, six-member jury decided Moore had no criminal liability. Brockett decided not to pursue charges against Moore.

In the 1970s, Carl was dealing with a lot of these types of cases because Seattle had one of the highest rates of Black people killed by police in the country, in proportion to the population, and he was taking on coroner’s inquests in Seattle, Lou said. All of t Those cases were hard for Carl, but the Jordan case was different, she said. Carl knew Carrie Jordan, the victim’s mother, and the rest of the family.

“Just having it be here, that made it even harder,” Lou said.

After Brockett’s decision, Carl issued a statement on Carrie’s behalf: “Craig Jordan had been raised solely by his Black mother for the past 16 years; a mother who had six other children to raise also. Five of those years they were on welfare; the rest of the time, and at the present time, the mother supports them by herself. This is indeed a difficult job for any person, let alone a Black woman in a white man’s world. The feeling of this white community is more than adequately reflected in the many hateful letters that have appeared in the press telling Mrs. Jordan if she had just kept her son at home, he would be alive today and in substance telling her that he just got what he deserved.”

If Craig’s death had happened today, would the results have been any different? Lou doesn’t think so.

“I hate to say that so right off the bat, but there’s nothing to indicate, absolutely nothing,” Lou said. “Things just haven’t progressed in that regard.”

New voices

Spokane city councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said she thinks if Carl were still around and able-bodied, he’d be on the courthouse steps with a bullhorn, and he would be focusing on youth and education.

“And that’s what can really keep us going in the right direction,” Wilkerson said. “I think it’s the ones coming behind us.”

Wilkerson has been excited “to hear so many other Black voices right now. They are actually out there and they are stepping up. Because you’d look back, they’ve been pretty silent, on many fronts. And there’s new ones we never even heard from before, young ones!”

Sandy Williams, Carl Maxey Center executive director and Black Lens News editor, said she was recently on vacation, and “we were driving up the coast and we went through this little, itty bitty Oregon coastal town. And as we’re driving through the town, there were these two white teenage girls that were standing on the street corner holding ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs all by themselves, having their own protest out there. … There’s something about it that’s making its way into the mainstream community in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

The Carl Maxey Center is a non-profit committed to improving the lives of Black people in Spokane, and Wilkerson said for this reason, there’s no name that would have worked better.

Wilkerson said she has young ones to thank for her current position – her grandchildren were cheering her on (“Gran Gran, do it, do it, do it!”) when she decided to pursue her seat on Spokane City Council. Wilkerson feels empowered because even though she will run again, she said she doesn’t vote thinking about the next election, she votes with her conscience, and said the rest of city council has trouble predicting how she will vote on matters.

“[The city government] is really stressed about this whole police thing,” Wilkerson said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m listening to the people. I ain’t got nothing to say right now, I’m just listening,’ which is good.”

Spokane attorney and champion collegiate boxer Carl Maxey fought his way into the segregated world of Spokane in the 1950s. Maxey poses for a portrait in 1997.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Spokane attorney and champion collegiate boxer Carl Maxey fought his way into the segregated world of Spokane in the 1950s. Maxey poses for a portrait in 1997. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive) Buy this photo

Retired Superior Court Judge Jim Murphy said Carl believed the criminal justice system should consider the individual. Though he encountered him as a judge countless times, Murphy first met Carl when he was in law school and working as a busboy at the Ridpath Hotel, where Carl would frequently take his office for lunch.

“He, of course, had a reputation as a boxer in college and carried that sort of an approach to things into the civil rights field, and fought hard for civil rights issues,” Murphy said.

Gonzaga University Boxing Coach, Joey August, works with a young Carl Maxey circa the 1940's.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Gonzaga University Boxing Coach, Joey August, works with a young Carl Maxey circa the 1940’s. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive) Buy this photo

Murphy said he has been saddened to see the proliferation of Black deaths at the hands of police.

“It’s such a blight on our judicial system and such a blight on our society as a whole,” Murphy said.

But what would Carl make of the call to “defund the police”?

“I think he would have thought it was necessary,” Lou said. “I look at it as a shorthand phrase. It shouldn’t be taken literally. But the dismantling, what they’re doing in Minneapolis, I think, dismantling doesn’t mean destroying. I mean, good grief. Why send armed police? There were four policemen that went to that shop when someone called in about a $20 counterfeit bill.”

Wilkerson said she understands that defunding is “a really charged word, and when you say that, it really gets people amped up when they’re protesting and marching. It doesn’t have the same effect as ‘we’re going to reallocate funds.’ To me, it’s reallocation of resources. Times have changed and from what I know, police methods and tools that they use have changed. So let’s look at that.”

But Wilkerson said government is not nimble, and strengthening mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment services won’t happen over night.

“I want to reallocate funds to support those systems knowing it’s going to take some time, and I hate saying that, but it’s the truth,” Wilkerson said. “But right now, we do have the police. I want to give them the tools. I want the training, that’s my drum beat.”

Wilkerson, Carl Maxey Center board president, said when her son got his driver license, she had a talk with him about what to do when he encountered police. These days, she said, that talk comes much sooner because “you just never know.”

But it’s not just encounters with police. It can be “walking into a doctor’s office or going into a store. You’re the only person in there, one of one,” Wilkerson said. “And that’s the weight we feel, and that’s when I talk about the look. People just look at you differently. It’s heavy, sometimes you get acclimated to it, but then something will happen and it’s like, ‘Really?’ And it starts again.”

In this March 1975 photo, Spokane Lawyer Carl Maxey is shown at his home with his two sons, Beven,at left, a star athlete at Lewis and Clark High School, and Bill, a University of Oregon Law School student. Maxey and his wife, Merrie Lou, were married in the summer of 1974.   (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
In this March 1975 photo, Spokane Lawyer Carl Maxey is shown at his home with his two sons, Beven,at left, a star athlete at Lewis and Clark High School, and Bill, a University of Oregon Law School student. Maxey and his wife, Merrie Lou, were married in the summer of 1974.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive) Buy this photo

The Maxey legacy

Wilkerson said that the Maxey legacy – that of Carl, and also his sons and grandsons – is important, “that generational thing is powerful, you just can’t get away from it,” she said. “But I want other kids of color to be able to walk in those same shoes, and leave their legacy in Spokane, or wherever they’re at, to leave their legacy. And that means sometimes being one of one.”

Bevan and Bill Maxey – Carl’s sons – are at Maxey Law Practice, as well as Carl’s grandson, Morgan Maxey. Morgan was only 6 when Carl died in 1997, but he has grown up hearing stories about the battles his grandfather fought. He keeps a poster of Carl in his office “to remember the fight never ends.”

“I think that’s really the biggest legacy that he left behind is that he started a fight, but it’s not a fight that one person can take on, it’s a fight for the community,” Morgan said.

Of all of Carl’s cases, the one that stands out to Morgan the most is the 1963 case of the barber who refused to cut a Black man’s hair. Maxey represented Jangaba Johnson, a Gonzaga University exchange student and Fulbright scholar from Liberia, by filing a complaint with the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. The board sided with Maxey, but the barber, John M. Wheeler, kept appealing, first to the superior court and then eventually, the Washington State Supreme Court in 1967. Again the court sided with Maxey. Rather than comply, Wheeler retired.

“Walking into a barber shop today, you wouldn’t have to worry about someone telling you, ‘Hey, no I’m not going to cut your hair just because of how you look,’” Morgan said. “It’s just something so simple that was really not that long ago, especially here. It just seems like it would be eons ago that you’d have to deal with something like that. But I think that one probably hits home the hardest with me.”

Morgan has been participating in the protests, and as for his grandpa, “I think he’d be out there with the rest of the protesters, and I think he would be making this a public issue, and making this a call to action for everyone.”

Morgan is also representing one of the protesters, 20-year-old Troy LeBlanc, who was arrested on June 12 on two counts of felony harassment for threats to kill on May 31 and June 1, stemming from an interaction with the Spokane police at the protests. The warrant for LeBlanc’s arrest was issued on June 5, and Morgan doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.

“I think the reason it was issued on that Friday was specifically done because there was an anticipated protest the following Sunday, and it was done to make sure Mr. LeBlanc was not a part of that,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he was happy to take on LeBlanc’s case. In fact, Morgan used to coach LeBlanc in basketball, and after LeBlanc was released on bail, he sent Morgan a photo from a dunk contest at an East Central gathering in which Morgan was dunking on LeBlanc.

“I try to treat clients as people as opposed to just a dollar sign,” Morgan said. “They’re people, they have problems, just like we all do. So I think it helps representing them if we can understand some of the problems they’re having and what they’re going through.”

Morgan is the Eastern Washington representative for the Loren Miller Bar Association, of which Carl was a founding member. Like his father, uncle and grandfather, Morgan received his law degree from Gonzaga Law School.

“I think it’s very important that minorities know that there is a way to get involved in the legal community, whether it’s starting out as a clerk, going to law school or what have you, but that’s where change needs to be made,” Morgan said.

Spokane City Prosecutor Justin Bingham acknowledged that his office has been having difficulties recruiting diverse candidates. Currently, there are no Black lawyers in the prosecuting office, he said.

Murphy served as a member of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission from the time of its creation to when he retired from the bench in 2003. During that time, they established a recruiting system in King County, which resulted in many more Black trial and appellate judges.

Nothing similar has been done in Spokane, and Murphy said, “I don’t think I ever, to my recollection, interviewed a Black person for a judicial position.”

Another inequity in the courtroom is juries. Bingham is part of the Minority and Justice Commission Jury Diversity Task Force, but he said the group has not met in over a year. The point was to make recommendations for lowering the barrier to serving on a jury – such as childcare – but Bingham said, “I honestly don’t remember the last time we met.”

“One of the hardest parts, especially on the defense side, is to get jury members that look like your client, and unfortunately most of the jury pool in Spokane are retired, older and very, very white,” Bingham said.

Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Jacob Rooksby said he knows Gonzaga needs to do better in terms of diversity. In the past few years, in class sizes of 100 to 140, the school has had two to three Black law students. Of the law school’s 24 full-time faculty members, there is one Black professor .

“This is, I think, an example of where we failed,” Rooksby said. “I think one of the great things about what’s happening right now is that we’re taking a serious and hard and long overdue look about the structural barriers to entry to the legal profession.”

One thing Rooksby is hopeful about is that Gonzaga is teaming up with the law schools at Seattle University and University of Washington to do an investigation of the criminal justice system, which the schools had undertaken for the first time 10 years ago. He said Gonzaga needs to work toward creating a culture where diverse students feel welcome, and thinks the school’s Center for Civil and Human Rights – which provides education, research and community events in the matters of civil rights – is a good step in that direction.

“Our center is really the locus of activity when it comes to education in the areas of civil and human rights, and believe it or not, not all law schools have such a center,” Rooksby said.

Wilkerson said she’s seen cases where kids who could have gone to college ended up in the military because the family wasn’t sure how to fill out the federal financial aid form. In her capacity with the Carl Maxey Center, Wilkerson said she’s been speaking to officials with Gonzaga, Whitworth University and Eastern Washington University about making their admissions more accessible to the Black community.

“Your people can come to where the people live and help families right there, right in their neighborhoods,” Wilkerson said. “How about making it comfortable for them and not comfortable for you, if you’re going to do the outreach like you say you’re going to do.”

Wilkerson said when she sees things like Bank of America taking out an ad proclaiming that Black lives matter, “I want to ask them with this statement, what have you done in the community of color? Show me your stuff.”

In the end of Carl’s letter on behalf of the Jordan family, he wrote, “Mrs. Jordan would also like to announce to all that she has no intention of pursuing any further action against the officer, but she asks also that her son not be forgotten and the facts of this case not swept under the table.”

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)