A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. (1928-1998)
Remarks at a memorial service at North Caarolina Central University 1999
I think it was in 1968 that I met Leon Higginbotham. He was then a federal judge in Philadelphia, but was teaching a class each Saturday for a semester at the University of Michigan Law School where I was employed. Both of us concluded our teaching at noon, and we fell into the habit of eating lunch together.
One lunch we fell into a discussion of the Declaration of Independence. Each of us had memorized as boys, back in the days when schools taught patriotism, that as Americans, “we hold that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” As I recall, we puzzled together over the tension between the idea of inalienable individual rights and the idea that just power is derived from the consent of the governed.
Leon and I both recalled experiences as boys that challenged the elegant rhetoric of Jefferson. Leon’s event was immeasurably more telling than mine. In 1944, when he was sixteen and fired with the idea of the Declaration that he was entitled to equal rights, he asked the president of Purdue University to find a place for him and other black students in the state university dormitory from which they had been excluded on account of their race. He was stiffed by the president, who suggested that he go elsewhere to study, which he did, but not before reminding the president of the words of the Declaration.
The experience I reported to Leon was not one in which I was myself affronted, but it was an event that brought to my mind the same rhetoric with which he had challenged his college president. The event occurred in 1941, when I was ten. The Barnum and Bailey Circus came to my town, Dallas. Because of the military draft, there was a shortage of circus workers. Barnum and Bailey advertised in the paper that boys ten and over could earn a free ticket to the show if they would meet the circus train and help unload the tents and other accoutrements of what they billed as The Greatest Show on Earth. With my father’s permission, but over my mother’s vehement protest, I went with my friend Bill to meet the train. The train was to arrive at five or so in the morning, and so we had to get up very early to ride our bikes the seven or eight miles to the fair grounds where the train was to be met. In truth, there was not all that much work to be done, and there was an excess of help. But four of us were given the task of unloading a considerable number of hay bales from a flat car. The hay bales were elephant feed. We did as we were told, and made a neat pyramid of hay bales. The elephants did not seem greatly interested in the hay, so the four of us commenced a game of king-of-the-mountain, taking turns throwing one another off the peak of the pile. We discovered that the bales were soft enough that a six or eight-foot fall on them, while it might take the wind out of you, would do no lasting harm. The four of us had a wonderfully violent time, and became warm friends. The game went on for hours.
Finally, it was time to admit the volunteer workers to the first performance, and we lined up for admission. As we got to the entrance, the Barnum & Bailey person, under visible distress, admitted me and Bill but excluded our two new friends because their skins were the wrong color. Bill and I went in, leaving our buddies outside, and I never saw them again, except in my mind’s eye. But neither did I see much of the circus, for I spent the rest of that day and more puzzling over how boys who were created equal and who had the same rights I enjoyed could be excluded from the circus to which they had earned the right of entry. It was, I am sorry to say, a long time before it occurred to me that I should have refused to enter and returned to the game of king-of-the-mountain, which would have been more fun than the circus anyway. Leon, I recall, listened to my story with appropriate sympathy, reassuring me that a ten-year-old, even one of greater moral sensitivity than I, could not have taken charge of such a situation. But I am not sure to this day that either of us really believed that I did the right thing and it is still painful to me to recall the event.
Leon went on from his encounter with the president of Purdue to devote over fifty years to the cause of correcting such injustices. Although a man of compassion for weak sinners like myself, he sustained his efforts in support of the cause, constant in the moral courage he had exhibited in his encounter with his college president. And he never forgot the promise of the Declaration. I have since taken heart from his words on that subject. “In the corridors of history,” he wrote:
there is a direct nexus between the egalitarian words uttered even if not yet meant, and many of the changes that took place. The irony of the unfulfilled American dream of equality is that of all those in the long line of dreamers who have sought the ultimately just society, none had to seek out alien sources for moral authority. They had only to say to the American people: fulfill the largest promise in your first statement as a nation.
It is today the fashion to speak of Leon as an African-American, and it is not for me to question that usage. But for me, Leon was an American with no prefix, and an American in every positive sense of that word. He was a brave soldier in the cause of leading America to keep its promise.
I recently had occasion to revisit John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book a high school teacher required me to read when I was fifteen. It is not light reading, but it is loaded with the most wonderful metaphors, as the pilgrims encounter every possible hardship and frustration on their path to the City on the Hill where they might hope to gain salvation. Among their many obstacles, my favorite was the Slough of Despond, the place in which pilgrims of weak faith became mired. While many still know of the City on the Hill, few know that it was denoted by Bunyan as the place where Legality resides. Indeed, from Bunyan’s description it seems that the City on the Hill might be the place that America has so long hoped to become.
Among the metaphorical characters in that work is one whom Leon Higginbotham might be said to resemble. That character is Sir Valiant. Sir Valiant did not make it to the City on the Hill, but progressed to a place from which the city itself was visible. There, Sir Valiant died, and there he expressed his faith. I like to think of his last words as being those of Leon as well: “I leave my shield and my sword,” Sir Valiant said, “to him who takes up my cause. I leave my strength and my courage to him who can find them. And I take with me my wounds and scars to show to Him in whose service they were received.”