Funeral services for Walter L. Gordon, Jr., a legendary Los Angeles trial attorney, drew scores of prominent elected and appointed officials and noted civic and community leaders.
For nearly seven decades, Gordon, who died April 16 and would have been 104 on June 22, represented mostly African-American clients with an irrepressible combination of dignity, wit and style.
In addition to successfully defending thousands of blacks during his long career, Gordon left several other enduring legacies. One of the more prominent among them was mentoring a generation of young, African-American lawyers from the 1940s forward.
Although the law school graduates he shepherded were very bright, dedicated and single-minded, there were then no opportunities for African-Americans to practice in white firms, simply because of their color.
“Young black lawyers (would have had) no place to go, had it not been for Walter Gordon,” Leo Branton, 90, told The Los Angeles Times last week. Adding insult to injury, the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s whites only clause also barred blacks from membership.
“He made a tremendous contribution and was a mentor to almost every lawyer who came along during the first five years I was in practice,” said Branton, who welcomed his first clients in 1949.
Over time, Branton’s expertise attracted a large stable of famous defendants, including Angela Davis, members of the Black Panther Party, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and Dorothy Dandridge.
When Gordon opened his law office in 1936 on Central Avenue, then southern California’s hub of black life and culture, Los Angeles was as segregated as many of the South’s most rigid cities.
In the 1930s, there were only an estimated 30 black lawyers throughout California, which posed a major dilemma for African-Americans charged with crimes, many of which they did not commit. Others faced harsh, maximum penalties for minor, insignificant and victim-less infractions.
Gordon’s role in defending them, said Lorn S. Foster, the Charles and Henrietta Detoy Professor of Government at Pomona College, “provided advancement for the race.” Very often, Foster explained, “blacks were accused of crimes they didn’t commit or had no access to counsel in California.”
Foster, an authority on black political development in Los Angeles, said, “Gordon once bragged that he had more cases on appeal before the Ninth Circuit District (the highest such court on the west coast), than any black lawyer.”
At the peak of Gordon’s practice in the late 1940s, according to his son, Walter, III, who is also an attorney, his father, “a master of publicity, had so many clients he even hired limousines to take them to court.
Billie Holiday, the jazz icon, needed Gordon’s services after she was accused of assaulting a white patron in a Los Angeles night club. The patron had provoked Holliday by heckling and insulting her as she sang “Strange Fruit,” a signature song decrying lynching. Gordon ultimately persuaded the judge to throw the case out of court.
Gordon’s symbiotic relationship with Charlotta Bass, the fiery publisher of the weekly California Eagle, then Los Angeles’ most aggressive black voice in promoting justice and equality, provided him with easy access to clients.
Bass, each week in need of dramatic news articles to ensure her newspaper’s high readership and circulation, printed pieces based on Gordon’s successful defense of his clients. In turn, the articles drew more clients to Gordon, to whom Bass rented office space, and increased her readership as well.
“Bass would go to him each week before publishing her newspaper and say, ‘what do you have for the front page, Walter?’” according to Foster.
In the early 1940s, Gordon swift, legal mind outfoxed the architects of a tax evasion case against dozens of black Pullman dining car waiters, whom the Internal Revenue Service hounded for failure to report their tips, implying they had accumulated large sums of money. After Gordon settled the case, each waiter paid only a $25 fine.
Gordon wasn’t impressed by the allure of “downtown success.” Although he could easily have done so, Gordon never moved his practice away from the African-American community, where he earned his success. In the early to mid-1970s, the power of the “movement” enabled black attorneys to enter affluent areas where they were once dismissed, including Beverly Hills and the Wilshire District.
The elder Gordon, his son said, “was always in the heart of the black community. He was primarily a man of the masses, although he knew the black elite and counted a number of very popular entertainers as close friends.” Some of them were blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, who recorded “Merry Christmas, Baby” and virtuoso jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan.
Paying tribute to his father, the younger Gordon said, “the greatest gift he gave me was his good name, which is invaluable in the African-American community.”
The elder Gordon, his son said, “taught me to stay in touch with ‘the everyday people, because you rise and fall with them, never cheat your clients and that integrity is your most valuable possession.’”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon, the younger Gordon’s wife, in a statement written for BlackAmericaWeb.com, said, “my father-in-law’s impact on my legal career began early in my marriage to my husband.”
In those days, the judge said, “I was a school teacher. My husband would call his father or vice versa and discuss court calendars, judges, cases, clients and information about posecutors.”
She was so fascinated by the legal profession, the judge said, “that one day, my husband suggested that I go to law school.”
“That was the beginning of my journey, which today allows me to sit as a judge at the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.”
The elder Gordon, she said, “would often tell his friends how I went from the Office of the Federal Public Defender to the Superior Court. He proudly said I got to the bench because the people voted for me and often commended me for my accomplishments.”