Parsons, James Benton
James Benton Parsons
Modest, hardworking James Benton Parsons was the first African American appointed for life as an Article III judge. His 1961 appointment marked a pivotal point for African Americans involved in the legal system. Through his dedication and perseverance, Parsons prospered in various roles: he graduated from high school as valedictorian, worked as a teacher, and ultimately served as a judge.
Parsons was born August 13, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of four children. His father was an evangelistic minister and his mother a schoolteacher. Parsons moved to Decatur, Illinois as a young child. As a teenager, Parsons dreamed of becoming an attorney; however, it was a dream which would take many years to realize. Parsons worked his way through Millikin University as a composing room helper at the Decatur Herald Review. Parsons earned a B.A. in music in 1934. Parsons could not afford law school, so he joined the faculty of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he taught music and political science. Parsons served as acting head of Lincoln University's Music Department from 1938 to 1940. He also continued his education, earning a B.A. in political science from the University of Washington (Saint Louis) in 1940. Parsons then accepted a job with the Greensboro, North Carolina public school system as supervisor of instrumental music for the black schools.
In 1942, Parsons enlisted in the United States Navy. He served as a bandmaster from 1942 to 1945. In addition he completed a tour of duty in the Pacific. Before 1942, African Americans were not able to serve in any area of the navy other than as mess attendants. In 1946, Parsons left the navy using the G.I. Bill to earn an M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago. His only son was born in 1947. Parsons belonged to several fraternities, including Kappa Alpha Psi as an undergraduate and Sigma Pi Phi as a graduate student. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Phi Honor Society and an honorary member of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity. In 1949, at the age of 38, Parsons became an attorney upon receiving his law degree from the University of Chicago.
Law and the Judicial System
Parsons began his legal career in private practice. In addition, from 1949 to 1950 he taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School. Parsons served as assistant corporate counsel for the city of Chicago from 1949 until 1951, and his hard work paid off: Parsons was appointed assistant U.S. district attorney for northern Illinois in 1951. With his education complete and a bright future, Parsons was able to focus on his personal life. In 1952, he married Amy Margaret Maxwell. They remained married until her death in 1967. Parsons served as assistant U.S. district attorney until 1960 when he was elected to the office of Cook County Superior Court judge. Almost immediately after assuming the Superior Court judgeship, Parsons was handed the Summerdale police conspiracy case. Chicago had long been known for political and police corruption. But the Summerdale scandal rocked the city when the public discovered that for over one year eight police officers had worked with a burglar named Richard Morrison to rob north-side retail stores. Most of the officers received sentences from two to five years. The Summerdale scandal resulted in the reorganization of the Chicago police department.
Early one Sunday morning in August 1961, Parsons received a phone call from President John F. Kennedy stating that he was naming Parsons as the first African American U.S. district court judge. Parsons was to take the seat of Judge Philip Leo Sullivan who had died in June 1960 after twenty-six years on the bench. While Parsons was not the first African American appointed as a federal judge, he was the first to receive life tenure. Judges Irvin C. Mollison, William Henry Hastie, and Scovel Richardson were appointed to judgeships prior to Parsons, but they received fixed term appointments. Parsons served as a U.S. district court judge for over thirty years, progressing to chief judge of the court in 1975, then to senior judge in 1981, and finally to chief judge emeritus in 1992 when he retired.
- Born in Kansas City, Missouri on August 13
- Earns B.A. in music from Millikin University
- Begins teaching music and political science at Lincoln University in Jefferson, Missouri
- Earns B.A. in political science from George Washington University
- Serves in U.S. Naval Reserves
- Earns M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago
- Son Hans-Dieter Parsons born
- Earns J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School; begins private practice with Gassaway, Crosson, Turner & Parsons
- Serves as assistant corporation counsel in Chicago
- Serves as assistant U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois
- Marries Amy Margaret Maxwell
- Appointed judge for the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois; begins Federal Judicial Service for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois
- Becomes chief judge for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois
- Assumes senior status for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois
- Retires as chief judge emeritus
- Dies in Chicago, Illinois on June 19
- James B. Parsons ceremonial courtroom in Chicago's Dirksen Federal Building is dedicated
Parsons made headlines for his outspokenness, ethics, humility, and selflessness. He was scrutinized inside and outside court. In 1969, Parsons caused a tremendous stir when he gave an interview to the New York Times in which he stated that African Americans should not get involved in "white man's crimes" such as counterfeiting, mail fraud, embezzling, and other similar crimes which require a level of skill which most African Americans did not possess given their limited career opportunities especially in those professions which required a high degree of technical skill.
In his early years as a U.S. district court judge, Parsons was accused of being soft on crime when he gave a bank president who had embezzled $58,000 a ninety-day jail term. In 1971, as reported by Gary Green in Federal Probation, Parsons made legal history when he placed the Atlantic Richfield Company on probation "so that he could monitor the company's progress in complying with his order to develop an oil spill response program." Parsons ruled in 1985 that United Airlines could continue to employ flight attendants who were hired during the pilot's strike, which caused a tremendous stir, also. As quoted by James Warren in the Chicago Sun-Times, Parson stated that United Airlines "must pay full fringe benefits including reinstatement of group insurance and medical benefits to all flight attendants who refused to cross the pilots' picket lines." United was also required to give "immediate seniority accrual to the flight attendants, even if they did not return to work immediately." In November 1988, Parsons overturned an appeals court ruling against the display of religious symbols on public property. In his decision, Parsons argued that the previous court's ruling was a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speec,h not a violation of the separation of church and state. According to Adrienne Drell, Parsons further stated, "The Public Building Commissions opposition to the créche and menorah is discrimination in its rankest form. It goes against the very grain of Americanism to see discrimination against anyone particularly against people because of their religion." Another key decision made by Parsons was his upholding the city of Chicago's Tenants Bill of Rights in 1987. He also drew attention for the role he played in the 1970 air traffic controllers' strike.
Recognition of Service
Parsons received many honors for his work as a judge. In 1967, the entire state of Illinois observed James B. Parsons Day. In addition, an elementary school in Decatur, Illinois was named after him that same year. In 1975, he was unanimously elected by the judges of the Seventh Circuit Court to represent them at the Judicial Conference of the United States. He also served for six years on the Judicial Conferences' Committee on Probation and Sentencing Seminars. In 1981, he received a citation for outstanding service as a chief judge of the district court from the Chicago Bar Association. In 1984, he received "The Outstanding Service Award" from Chicago University. Parsons served for three years as the vice chairman of the Chicago Commission on Police and Community Relations and for four years on the Council of Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association. Parsons was cited by Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) for a quarter century of service as the first black Article III judge. Parsons was honored several times by Ebony magazine; in 1991 he was named one of the 100 Most Influential Blacks in America. Parsons also received academic recognition for his work. He received honorary degrees from Lincoln University, Millikin University, and De Paul University Law School. The honorary degrees included a Doctor of Letters and Doctor of Laws.
When Parsons retired in 1992, several judges, former law clerks, and attorneys decided to have a dinner in his honor. Parsons vetoed the idea, stating instead that it should be a celebration of all African American Title III judges. It became a weekend-long event called "Just the Beginning," which evolved into a foundation whose goals include education of the public about the role of African Americans in the judicial system as well as scholarships to promising law students. Parsons donated $35,000 to the scholarship fund which bears his name. Even after Parsons retired from trial work, he did not completely give up his judicial duties; he continued to swear in new United States citizens and other similar duties.
Parsons not only provided leadership in a professional capacity but was an active member of the community. Parsons was a member for twenty-eight years of the Chicago-area Council for the Boy Scouts of America as well as nine years on the Boy Scouts' National Advisory Council. Parsons served for almost twenty years on the Executive Board of the Citizenship Council of Metropolitan Chicago. He served as a member of the advisory board of the Illinois Masonic Hospital for fourteen years. Parsons served for six years as a member of the Illinois Commission on Education for Law and Justice of the State Board of Education. Parsons served eight years on the board of directors of Chicago's Harvard-St. George School and one term on the President's Council of St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. Parsons continued to serve on various committees at the University of Illinois, University of Chicago Law School, and Loyola University Law School. During the early 1960s Parsons helped found the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race which worked with interfaith groups to form housing information centers, to hold employment training programs, and to help people find work.
Parsons died after a prolonged illness on June 19, 1993. He was 81 years old. He was survived by his son, Hans-Dieter Parsons, a grandson, and one sibling, his sister Amy Margaret Maxwell. The legacy left by Parsons was such that three years after his death the ceremonial court room in Chicago's Dirksen Courthouse was named in his memory.
Benson, Christopher. "The Super Summit of Black Federal Judges." Ebony 48 (December 1992): 110-13.
Drell, Adrienne. "City Get O.K. for a Créche, Menorah." Chicago Sun-Times, 20 June 1993.
Green, Gary S. "Organizational Probation under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines." Federal Probation, December 1988.
Johnson, Mary A. "James Parsons Dies 1st Black Federal Judge." Chicago Sun-Times, 20 June 1993.
Pace, Eric. "James Parsons, 81, A Black Trailblazer as a Federal Judge." New York Times, 22 June 1993.
Rossi, Rosalind. "1st Black U.S. District Judge Retiring." Chicago Sun-Times, 13 June 1992.
Warren, James. "United Wins on New Attendants Judge Won't Bar Employment of Strike Breakers." Chicago Sun-Tribune, 28 June 1985.
"History of Just the Beginning Foundation." Just the Beginning Foundation. http://www.jtbf.org/jtbfhistory.htm. (Accessed 3 December 2004).
"James Benton Parsons." Just the Beginning Foundation. http://www.jtbf.org/five_firsts/Parsonsj/htm. (Accessed 3 December 2004).
"James Parson, an Influential Judge!" The African American Registry. http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1791/James_Parsons_an_influentialjudge. (Accessed 3 December 2004).
Anne K. Driscoll