Crockett, George Jr. 1909—
George Crockett, Jr. 1909—
Retired attorney, judge, legislator
“If Detroit has an icon, it is Crockett,” wrote Susan Watson in the Detroit Free Press in 1992. She was referring to the five-decade-long career of George Crockett, Jr. as both activist and public servant. The octogenarian retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 after representing Michigan’s 13th Congressional District for a decade, but the list of achievements in Crockett’s life stretched far behind his stint in Washington. An attorney by profession, Crockett was the first African American examiner appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a government labor board in 1943. He later worked as a labor union activist in the struggle to bring fair employment practices to the automobile manufacturing industry, then became widely known as a civil rights lawyer.
In the 1960s the Detroiter was elected to a judicial body not known at the time for its equitable dispensation of justice. Crockett’s activism was part of a movement that helped alter Detroit’s political landscape and eventually saw the election of its first African American mayor. His efforts and accomplishments helped clear the way for a generation of African American leaders across the country. His political legacy has been passed on to another generation of Crocketts as well—his son George Crockett, III, is a prominent Detroit judge and his physician daughter Ethelene has been a vocal supporter of women’s reproductive rights.
Crockett was born in Jacksonville, Florida on August 10, 1909. His working life began when he started delivering groceries at the age of 12. After receiving a degree from Morehouse College in 1931, Crockett earned a juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan three years later. He then returned to his hometown to begin a law practice, but within a few years his credentials had attracted the attention of the Roosevelt administration.
The Department of Labor selected him as its first African American lawyer in 1939, one of several “firsts” for Crockett in a distinguished career. During his tenure with the department, he served as senior attorney for employee lawsuits filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This line of work led to Crockett’s appointment by Franklin D. Roosevelt as an examiner with the country’s first Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1943, making him the president’s first African American appointee.
Born George William Crockett, Jr., August 10,1909, in Jacksonville, FL; son of George William and Minnie A. (Jenkins) Crockett; married Ethelene Jones (a physician; deceased); married Harriette Clark (a physician), 1980; children (first marriage): Elizabeth Ann Crockett Hicks, George William Crockett III, Ethelene Crockett Jones, Education: Morehouse College, A.B., 1931; University of Michigan School of Law, J.D., 1934.
Practiced law in Jacksonville, FL, mid-1930s; United States Department of Labor, Washington DC, attorney, 1939, became senior attorney with Fair Labor Standards Act Administration, hearing examiner for Fair Employment Practices Commission, 1943; International United Auto Workers Fair Employment Practices Department, Detroit, Ml, founder and director, 1944; United Auto Workers, Detroit, administrative assistant to international secretary and general counsel to treasurer, 1946; Goodman, Crockett, Eden & Robb (law firm), Detroit, founding partner, 1946, senior partner, 1946–66; director of National Lawyers Guild’s Project Mississippi, 1964; elected Recorders Court judge, 1966, reelected, 1972, named presiding judge, 1974; Michigan Court of Appeals, visiting judge, 1978; City of Detroit, acting corporate counsel, 1980; elected to United States House of Representatives, representing Michigan’s 13th Congressional district, 1980, re-elected, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, retired, 1990. Founder and first chair of National Bar Association Judicial Council.
Addresses: Home —Washington, DC.
By this time Crockett had married a young woman named Ethelene and the two were busy starting a family. Crockett had promised Ethelene’s father before they married that he would support her in her quest to attend medical school, but privately he wanted his wife to stay at home with their children. When Ethelene developed complications during her third pregnancy, Crockett made a pact with himself that he would let her do as she pleased, if she would just survive the toxemia in her body that was complicating both her pregnancy and her own health. She survived, as did namesake daughter Ethelene, and within a few years Crockett’s wife had graduated with honors from Howard University Medical School. She became the first African American woman to practice obstetrics and gynecology in Michigan, where the family soon moved.
Crockett’s close ties with the city of Detroit began shortly after it had erupted in three days of rioting in 1943. An influx of African American workers from the South had increased race-based animosities within Detroit’s mammoth carmaking plants, and the tensions had spilled out onto the streets. It was customary for white autoworkers to walk off the line the day an African American worker started his job in their department. The United Auto Workers union, concerned about maintaining Detroit’s wartime production of tanks and military vehicles—and the good graces of Washington, DC—set out to defuse the situation. The UAW set up a Fair Employment Practices office, and Crockett was hired to head it. Through his work he became a well-known figure in the city and acquainted with other labor and civil rights activists. Longtime UAW president Douglas Fraser, quoted decades later in the Detroit Free Press, called Crockett “a civil rights activist before civil rights was very popular.”
For two years Crockett served as the director of the Fair Employment Practices Office, but left in 1946 to enter private practice as an attorney once again. He became a founding partner of Goodman, Crockett, Eden, and Robb. Their Detroit office was one of the first integrated firms in the nation and developed a reputation early on for its work in civil rights issues. Crockett’s first stint in jail occurred as a result of his work as a defense attorney in U.S. District Court for 11 American communists in the late 1940s who had been charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Crockett’s arguments with the presiding judge on behalf of his clients’ rights to a fair trial earned him a citation for contempt of court. He spent four months in prison for it. “After prison, I learned not to fear,” Crockett said of the experience in a Detroit Free Press interview.
At the height of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, Crockett was a key player during some of the most charged months of the struggle. By then he was in his early fifties, but he left his Detroit home and law office in 1964 to become the director of Project Mississippi for the National Lawyers Guild. The Guild was determined to halt the illegal—and unconstitutional—practices of the white institutions against Mississippi’s African American residents.
Crockett set up offices in Jackson, and in those offices young lawyers from Michigan—who would later go on to become some of the state’s most influential African American public servants—spent the night on cots; during the day they planned their strategy. Over the course of the summer, Crockett and the others faced harassment and even possible death for their activities. Churches and crosses were burned and three civil rights workers disappeared one Sunday on their way to investigate an arson incident, after first asking Crockett for advice about it.
Upon learning of the missing trio—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—Crockett and other activists went to see the local sheriff. A large and unruly white crowd greeted them outside Philadelphia, Mississippi’s municipal offices, and Crockett remembered the tension inside as well. “The sheriff gives us meticulous instructions on how to get to that location,” Crockett recalled in the Detroit Free Press in 1989 about their inquiry as to the arson scene to which the activists had been headed. “And it strikes me… that he was talking in a voice that was unnecessarily loud. We got the distinct impression that he was talking beyond us to the group behind us, telling them how to follow us to where we were going.” Crockett and the others left the sheriff’s headquarters. “There was unanimous consent. We ain’t going to look for any church,” Crockett recalled about their fear. “We’re going to get the hell out of here.”
Crockett eventually returned to Detroit and continued his law practice. In 1966, he retired from the firm to run for a seat on Detroit Recorder’s Court. Like many other of the city’s institutions of the era, the court did not reflect the changing racial make-up of the city nor seem particularly aware of any need to dispense justice fairly. “Recorders Court was a pigpen,” recalled Detroit minister and attorney Milton Henry for the Free Press in 1990. “They disregarded the rights of blacks.” Crockett was elected the fourth African American on the bench among 13 judges.
Crockett’s 12-year tenure at Recorders Court was marked by a single incident that had far-reaching implications in the city. On March 29, 1969, a leftist black separatist group headed by Henry was meeting at the New Bethel Baptist Church. An encounter outside between police and an armed gunman—who may have actually been a security guard for the meeting—left one white officer dead and the mostly African American attendees locked up. Crockett was scheduled for Sunday arraignments at Recorders Court for March 30 and was contacted by Henry and some others. The judge arrived at the police station and “found total legal chaos,” according to Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. The suspects “were being questioned, fingerprinted, and given nitrate tests to determine if they had fired guns, all without the benefit of legal counsel, into total disregard of fundamental constitutional procedures. Hours after the roundup, there wasn’t so much as a list of persons being held, and no one had been formally arrested.”
At this juncture Crockett began legal proceedings on behalf of the suspects, issuing a writ demanding the police to present the detainees. He summarily released 37 of them, even nine who investigators wanted held because their hands had tested positive for nitrate traces. Crockett countered that those tests had been conducted illegally. Police brass eventually called the county prosecutor, who put an end to Crockett’s makeshift court at the police station. But the legal proceedings continued on and by the next morning nearly all of the people taken into headquarters had been released.
“Can any of you imagine the Detroit police invading an all-white church and rounding up everyone in sight to be bused to a wholesale lock-up in a police garage?” Crockett told the press a few days later. “Can any of you imagine a church group … being held incommunicado for seven hours without being allowed to telephone relatives and without their constitutional rights to counsel? Because a terrible crime was committed, it does not follow that other wrongs be permitted or condoned.” The police commissioner, in response, contended that shots were fired at other officers from inside the church, hence their suspicions. Others noted that the police actions that night were were tantamount to a climate of martial law, and could have sparked intense rioting in the already-edgy city.
Crockett’s legal actions earned him the enmity of the Detroit Police Officers’ Association (DPOA), who began a formal campaign to remove him from the bench. Joining in the fracas was the more conservative of the city’s two papers, the Detroit News. Yet Crockett found support from the UAW as well as a report published by the Detroit Commission on Community Relations. Their inquiry into the incident found that Crockett had committed no wrongdoing in his impromptu court, while severely criticizing the actions and procedures of Detroit’s police force that night.
Because of the incident and its aftermath, more pressure was brought on the city’s institutions for equitable treatment of all its residents, including African Americans. A serious effort was made to integrate the police force, and by 1973 an interracial coalition had elected the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman Young. Crockett had defended Young in the early 1950s when the labor activist was called to testify before a Senate committee that was trying to root out Communists in the United States.
By the time Young left office two decades later, nearly every position of power in the city was occupied by an African American, a first in a North American metropolis. Speaking of the city and its political climate to Ze’ev Chafets, author of 1990’s Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, Crockett recalled a forecast he had made years before. “When I first ran for City Council, back in 1965,” Crockett said, “I predicted that within ten years Detroit would be a majority black city with a black leadership, and I was right.”
In 1972 Crockett was re-elected for another six-year term on the Recorders Court bench, and in 1974 was named presiding judge of the court. He retired in 1978, but served as visiting judge for the Michigan Court of Appeals. In 1980, he campaigned for his first legislative office at the age of 71, and won the House of Representatives seat for Michigan’s 13th Congressional district. His electorate comprised the downtown section of the city as well as some of its more devastated neighborhoods. After only a few months in Washington, Crockett joined with other liberal lawmakers in a suit against the Reagan Administration. They charged that the Executive Office had violated the War Powers Act in providing military aid to El Salvador. It was the start of a decadelong stance against Republican foreign policy for Crockett.
Most of Crockett’s legislative career was distinguished by similar vocal opposition to political issues. He weathered criticism for using his platform to speak out against conservative policies and international events, a platform that some felt might have been used to call attention to the problems of Detroit—and the rest of urban America. Crockett became an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s racist apartheid regime and was part of an international effort to pressure the country into releasing activist Nelson Mandela from prison. Crockett also joined those who called for economic sanctions against the country because of apartheid’s legally sanctioned discrimination. In 1984, Crockett was arrested for taking part in a demonstration outside the Washington’s South African embassy and spent the night in jail. The legislator, well into his seventies, was unfazed by his arrest, reminding others that “it wasn’t my first time going to prison,” the Congressional Quarterly’s 1988 yearbook Poliitics in America reported.
In 1987 Crockett was selected to chair the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. In this position he was able to stridently oppose the Reagan Administration’s policy on Central America, which had recently come under fire for providing covert aid to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua working to unseat a Communist government. Conservative lawmakers and administration officials opposed Crockett and his political platform and revived charges that the statesperson was a Communist because of his earlier days as a labor activist.
Crockett announced he would retire from the House of Representatives in 1990, finally admitting that he would like to slow down a little. At the time of the announcement, the Detroit Free Press noted in tribute that it looked forward to a successor to Crockett that “shares his passion for human rights and social justice, and can act on it with equal energy and intelligence.” The retired legislator remained in Washington, in part because his second wife—Harriette—had a pediatrics practice in the city.
In 1992, the still-influential political figure again made an appearance in the headlines of the Detroit newspapers. A Michigan Supreme Court justice, Dennis Archer, had announced his bid to run for mayor in the 1993 election. If Young decided to run again, it would have been for his sixth consecutive term. When Archer officially opened his campaign, Crockett publicly supported Archer’s bid and called for Young to step down. “Crockett’s presence telegraphed the intended message: that Archer has the right stuff—politically and socially—for Detroit’s future,” opined the Detroit Free Press. At the last minute, Young decided that he would not run again; Archer fulfilled the newspaper’s estimation of Crockett’s influence by taking office in early 1994.
Chafets, Ze’ev, Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, Vintage Books, 1990.
CQ’s Politics in America, CQ Press, 1989, p. 759.
Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, St. Martin’s, 1975.
Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, compilers and editors, Reference Library of Black America, Volume II, Gale, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, February 12, 1989, p. IB; March 28, 1989, p. 1A; June 18, 1989, magazine section, p. 12; March 29, 1990, p. 15A, p. 16A; February 14, 1991, p. 3A; November 20, 1992, p. 1B; November 23, 1992, p. 1A.
New York Times, July 30, 1993, p. A20.
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