Parsons, James 1911–1993
James Parsons 1911–1993
Judge James Parsons was the first African American named to the U.S. District Court with life tenure. An outspoken jurist, Parsons was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and presided for more than 30 years before his retirement in 1992. While at the time of his appointment there were several black federal district judges in the Virgin Islands, Parsons was the first in the continental United States with life tenure. Considered a trailblazer by judges who followed him and revered as a champion by many civil rights activists, Parsons participated first-hand in three decades of social, political, and cultural advancements for African Americans.
James Benton Parsons, the son of a Disciples of Christ minister and his wife, was born August 13, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Parsons family moved to Decatur, Illinois, when he was still very young. As a child and young adult, music--not law--captured his attention and imagination. So much was his love for music that, following high school, he worked his way through James Milliken University and Conservatory of Music from which he graduated in 1934. Parsons then turned his attention to teaching. Beginning in the fall of 1934, he taught music and political science at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1938 Parsons became acting head of the music department, a position he would hold until 1940. As if his responsibilities at Lincoln were not keeping him busy enough, Parsons spent the summers between 1935 and 1940 studying political science at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1940 Parsons moved to North Carolina where Greensboro Public Schools hired him as the supervisor of instrumental music. He remained in North Carolina until 1942 when, at the age of 30, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in World War II. Upon his return from duty, he enrolled in the University of Chicago where, in 1946, he received his masters degree in political science followed by his law degree in 1949. For the next two years, Parsons practiced law with the firm Gassaway, Crosson, Turner & Parsons, while also teaching constitutional law at John Marshall Law School and serving as corporation council for the city of Chicago. Parsons then served as assistant U.S. district attorney for nine years until he became a judge of the Cook County Superior Court in 1960.
One year later, while on a weekend getaway at his Lakeside, Michigan, summer home, Parsons was awakened by an early Sunday morning phone call. Assuming it was his wife--who surely knew better than to wake him so early while on a restful retreat--he unleashed a string of angry expletives on the early morning intruder. As Parsons told Christopher Benson of Ebony, a few seconds into his diatribe he was interrupted by the caller: “But judge,” the caller said, “this is John F. Kennedy.” President John F. Kennedy to be exact, who was calling Parsons to let him know that he wanted to appoint him the first black U.S. district court judge in the continental
Born James Benton Parsons, August 13, 1911, in Kansas City, MO; died June 19, 1993, in Chicago, IL; the son of James B. (a minister) and Maggie Parsons; married Amy Margaret Maxwell (died 1967); children: Hans-Dieter. Education : James Milliken University and Conservatory of Music, B.A., 1934; studied political science, University of Washington graduate school, summers 1935-1940; University of Chicago, M.A., political science, 1946; LL.D., 1949.
Judge. Taught music and political science at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO, 1934-1938; acting head of music department at Lincoln University, 1938-1940; supervisor of instrumental music, Public Schools of Greensboro, NC, 1940-1942; volunteered U.S. Navy, 1942-1945; law firm of Gassaway, Crosson, Turner & Parsons, 1949-1951; taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School, Chicago, IL, 1940-1951; assistant corporation counsel for City of Chicago, 1949-1951; assistant U.S. district attorney, 1951-1960; Cook County Superior Court, judge, 1960-1961; U.S. District Court Judge, Chief of Court, Chief Judge Emeritus, Senior Judge, 1961-1992; initiated James B. Parsons scholarship fund, 1992. Military service : U.S. Navy, 1942-1945.
Awards: Honorary degrees, Lincoln University, James Milliken University, DePaul University Law School; Parsons Elementary School dedicated in his name, 1967, Decatur, IL; Citation of Recognition for Outstanding Service as Chief Judge of the District Court, Chicago Bar Association, 1981; Outstanding Service Award, Chicago State University, 1984.
U.S. with life tenure. “It was a great shock,” he recalled to Benson. Parsons ended the call with an “Aye, aye, sir” to his fellow Navy-man, who responded with the appropriate, “Carry on.” With the appointment and confirmation of Parsons, a new era began in which African American attorneys who worked for the civil rights cause followed Parsons and his contemporaries onto local, state, and federal benches and applied the laws they fought so hard to change.
Changes did not occur overnight, however. In 1962, at a centennial ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation held at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, Parsons issued a dim report of the last 100 years and a stern warning for the future. He told the New York Times that Lincoln’s eyes would be, “aflame with anxiety and impatient concern that emancipation of the American negro has been but half completed--when there lies ahead of us shockingly so little time in which to complete it.” The judge went on to say that American cities remained ethnically divided patchworks, with each enclave retaining an idea of superiority and hatred. For democracy and western civilization to thrive, “[African Americans] must be accepted in every facet of life,” he said, “not merely with a pretense toward equality--but with a feeling of identity.”
Parsons made news again in 1969 when he condemned blacks for getting caught up in slick “white man’s crimes.” In an interview with Bernard L. Collier of The New York Times, Parsons claimed that blacks had neither the education nor the background to commit such crimes as counterfeiting, mail fraud, embezzling, safe cracking, and jewel theft with any degree of skill, “Because the society has prevented [them] from getting into that world.” Opportunities to work as engravers--a good start for counterfeiters--or watchmakers--helpful if you want to crack safes--were denied to African Americans institutionally. “I am not saying to my people that they ought to get into crafts and skills and big business to steal, or to learn to steal cleverly;” he simply felt it was “especially stupid” for blacks to get involved with those types of crimes because they risked a greater chance of getting caught. James Cass, the education editor of the Saturday Review, used Parsons’s words in an editorial lamenting the lack of equality in the nation’s schools.
Parsons’s tenure on the bench was not without notable legal incidents. The New York Times’ s obituary cited a federal case in which he sentenced 47 men to jail for price fixing. Parsons also played a crucial role in the air traffic controllers’ dispute in their 1970 strike. In 1987 Parsons had to uphold the Tenant’s Bill of Rights in Chicago. Not afraid of ruffling some feathers, he ruled the following year that the Daley Center in Chicago could display nativity scenes publicly.
Parsons retired from the bench in 1992, although for a few months following his official retirement he continued to perform some functions, including swearing in new citizens, until ill health prevented such duties. Fellow African American federal judges wished to commemorate his long career. They organized a day-long event that eventually became a tribute to all black judges who hold Parsons in their debt. Parsons passed away a short time later on June 19, 1993, at the age of 81. “It’s a tragic loss,” longtime friend and former Illinois Appellate Justice R. Eugene Pincham told Jet. “But you measure death by the contributions a man makes when he is alive and he made a monumental contribution.”
Editors of Ebony, Ebony Success Library, Vol. II: One Thousand Successful Blacks, Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.
Ebony, December 1992, p. 110.
Jet, July 6, 1992, p. 14; July 5, 1993, p. 4.
New York Times, September 23, 1962, p. 50; July 24, 1967, p. 27; May 4, 1969, p. 33; June 22, 1993.
Saturday Review, August 16, 1969, p. 39.
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