In late July of 1963, attorney Russell Bertram Sugarmon Jr., had a near-death experience. A bullet was fired into the car he was riding in with two other attorneys and a minister as they crossed over into Collierville during a return trip from a tense encounter in Somerville.
The incident punctuated the times. The first sit-ins in Fayette County had resulted in 30 arrests.
Sugarmon and attorneys Benjamin L. Hooks and A.W. Willis Jr. traveled to Somerville seeking the protesters’ release. The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., Centenary Methodist Church pastor, was with them. Hooks and Willis were cut by flying glass.
Such valor and determination came to Judge George H. Brown Jr.’s mind when he sought to put Mr. Sugarmon’s death on Monday into context.
“There is no doubt that with the passing of Judge Sugarmon, a great era has passed,” said Brown, a Memphis-based mediator and the first African American appointed to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court. “I came back to Memphis in 1967 with my law degree. But before I went to law school, they were my role models – H.T. Lockhart, A.W. Willis, Ben Hooks and Judge Sugarmon.
“They were practicing civil rights activism in the courts and winning great battles. They were legal giants in the struggle against segregation and racial discrimination. There are not many of us who can fill and occupy their shoes,” Brown said.
“The footprints are too big for us. We try and do the best we can to follow their example. Judge Sugarmon was the last of those great men. And now, like them, he belongs to the ages.”
Mr. Sugarmon passed after a lengthy illness. He was 89. His son, Division 2 Municipal Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon, recalled his father as a selfless and courageous warrior in the fight for civil rights.
“He never sought personal acclaim as he battled for equal rights of black people. He was always happy to stand in the ranks among other warriors in the fight,” Sugarmon said.
“During these very difficult days since his passing, we have been so grateful for the strong outpouring of love and support we have received from everyone. It is a great comfort to know that generations of many recognize and appreciate the many sacrifices and contributions he made to make life better for us all.”
Judge Sugarmon was born in Memphis on May 11, 1929. His parents were Russell B. Sugarmon Sr. and Lessye Hank Sugarmon and they made their family home in South Memphis, where Russell Jr. attended Co-Operative Grammar School. In 1946, he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at 15.
His first year of college was completed in Atlanta at historic Morehouse College. At 19, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. By the age of 22, he had earned his law degree from Harvard Law School in a day when few African Americans were admitted.
Rather than set up shop to practice law, Judge Sugarmon went to the U.S. Army for two years, where he served in Japan. After discharge, he attended Boston University’s Graduate School of Finance. Despite many opportunities to practice law elsewhere, Mr. Sugarmon returned home.
Teaming up with Hooks and Willis, Sugarmon helped drive a law firm that became synonymous with landmark civil rights legal battles. Later, Mr. Sugarmon became a founding member of the firm Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis and Caldwell –the first integrated law firm in the South.
In 1959, the popular and well-respected attorney ran for Public Works Commissioner. He was the first African American in Memphis to run for a major city office.
According to Mr. Sugarmon’s online biography, the outgoing commissioner, Henry Loeb, forced most of the other candidates to withdraw from the election, so as not to split the white vote among several candidates. The only white man remaining on the ballot won the post.
Mr. Sugarmon served in the Tennessee State House from 1967 to 1969. From 1976 to 1987, he served as a referee in the Memphis Juvenile Court system.
Appointed to the General Sessions bench in May 1987, Mr. Sugarmon was elected to the seat in 1988 and won re-election until 2006 when he retired.