Walter Gordon was a L.A. civil rights lawyer with a list of clients ranging from dining-car waiters aboard the train to singer Billie Holiday.
It was Walter Gordon who defended Holiday when she was accused of assaulting a white customer at a local nightclub. The customer disturbed the singer while she was performing “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. Gordon got the case dismissed.
In the 1940’s, when the federal government was suing dozens of the black dining-car waiters for tax evasion, Walter Gordon got the case settled with a minor fine.
People lined up in front of Walter Gordon’s office, which was one of only 30 black law firms in the entire state of California. In another 1940’s case, Gordon defended a number of black deputy sheriffs who had made an off-duty arrest while armed. During that era, it was illegal for blacks, even those who were deputies, to carry weapons. With the skillful use of medieval law references, Gordon got the cases dismissed.
A Santa Monica, C.A. native, Gordon’s work ethic likely came from his father, who delivered mail on horseback in Pasadena. An only child, Gordon’s first job was selling newspapers outside of a building where a local civil rights organization met. It was there that Gordon would hear the lawyers speaking and thus, inspired his future steps in law.
In 1936, Walter Gordon received his law degree from Ohio State University. He opened up an office directly across from the California Eagle, a publication started in 1897 by an escaped slave. Interestingly, Gordon collected old photos from the publication over the years, then donated them to UCLA.
Unfortunately, Walter Gordon’s parents were both killed at home in 1949. As a result, Gordon refused to take any more violent criminal court cases.
Walter Gordon’s practice was in the Los Angeles African-American community for 65 years, even when the L.A. Bar Association had a “Whites Only” clause. He served as a mentor in the community for many young black lawyers starting their firms.
Walter Gordon passed away on April 16th. He was 103 years old.