Additional reporting by Nayaba Arinde, Amsterdam News Editor

“Blacks must boycott New York courts now,” attorney Alton Maddox, Jr. said in the Amsterdam News seven years ago. “It makes no sense for us to go into these racist courts and expect justice.” That same year, he repeated that demand during his testimony before the New York Commission on Statewide Attorney Discipline. Such a declaration was typical of a man who was known as the “Attorney at War,” and the “People’s Lawyer” who joined the ancestors on Sunday, April 23, 2023. He was 77.

Sources close to the family told the Amsterdam News that Maddox had been staying in the Bronx for over a year, and died in a nursing home on Saturday night/Sunday morning April 23, 2023.

In exclusive quotes to the Amsterdam News, both Mayor Eric Adams and Rev. Al Sharpton spoke about the passing of the man known as the “People’s Attorney.”

Mayor Adams said, “He was a legal genius who used his legal knowledge as a shield, and swiped to fight on behalf of marginalized people of color.”

Rev. Sharpton declared, “I’ve spoken to Charles Maddox to give the condolences of NAN [the National Action Network] and myself. I had not spoken or seen Alton in 20 years (2003) and we had our tactical and ideological differences (that he chose to make public), [but] now is the time to give our prayers and thoughts to his son and grandchildren.”

For several decades, Maddox was a hot topic for news agencies, mainly because of his take-no-prisoners legal practice and the controversial cases he litigated without compromise or concession. “I am the only attorney in the state of New York who has brought two special prosecutors to a case—Tawana Brawley and Howard Beach,” he often exclaimed. It was the former that got him suspended from practicing law in 1990 after he refused to respond to a grievance committee hearing complaints about his conduct in the Brawley case.

RELATED: Mama Leola Maddox, indomitable activist and librarian

Maddox, Sharpton, and attorney C. Vernon Mason were a trio of lawyers who brought public attention to cases, especially in regard to racist attacks and police abuse. It was in 2000 that a jury found Maddox, Sharpton, and Mason liable in a defamation case during the Brawley case. Maddox vehemently defied the verdict and refused to pay “one red cent” of the damage award.

“My parents would never let me work for white people as I was growing up because they didn’t want me exposed to that way of instilling the racial superiority of whites,” Maddox told the New York Times in 1987. That early training and attitude characterized his courtroom demeanor and his activism, which were inseparably linked.

Born on July 21, 1945 in Inkster, Michigan, an all-Black town on the outskirts of Detroit, Maddox grew up in Newnan, Georgia. He attended Howard University, where he earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1967 and then a juris doctorate from Boston College in 1971.

Before gaining notoriety in the Tawana Brawley case, in which she stated she was abducted and raped, Maddox represented Michael Stewart, an emerging artist, who died in police custody in 1983. Later, he was the attorney for Cedric Sandiford and the family of Michael Griffith, who was killed on the Belt freeway while fleeing a white mob. Maddox accused the NYPD and Black Commissioner Benjamin Ward of a cover-up.

Each case enhanced Maddox’s expanding reputation, and in rapid succession, his clients included the family of Yusuf Hawkins; Michael Briscoe, who was arrested along with others accused in the Central Park jogger case in which he was found innocent; he even represented Sharpton, who faced a 67-count indictment alleging fraud and theft. Sharpton was acquitted.

All this occurred while Maddox was enduring charges about his professional behavior in and out of court. He continued to host weekly meetings of his United African Movement at several locations in Brooklyn, including the Slave Theater and subsequently in Harlem at the Cotton Club. These were popular gatherings where Maddox had a bully pulpit to expound on current issues as well as Black history, particularly from a legal and political perspective. Indispensable to these lively sessions was his wife, Leola, who died in 2017.

Over the last several years, Maddox was less visible and there were reports he had moved back to Georgia, although now and then, word would come about his ongoing fight for civil and human rights in various speaking engagements. But there was very little account of any fresh courtroom battles.

“They don’t want me back in the courtroom,” he often said, “because they don’t want any more butt whippings.” He would say this with a smile on his face and the brash refusal to bite his tongue or to curtail his desire to speak truth to power. “No justice, no peace” was his mantra and war cry.

John Walker, long-time moderator of Maddox’s United African forum, told the AmNews, “There’s not a professional, legal person who did not benefit from the influence of attorney Alton Maddox, with his professionalism and master ability.

His skills traversed the international arena. He was a dedicated asset to our community. He will be missed, but students and activists will forever be able to study his devastatingly effective court decorum. His delivery was a masterclass.”

“Attorney Alton Maddox united the Black world, he wanted us to understand human rights. He worked with all the grassroots community leaders and groups,” said long-time activist Veronica Phillips-Nickey. “He was Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s attorney. He invited local, national, and international speakers to his United African Forum at Harlem’s Oberia Dempsey Center and the Slave Theater in Brooklyn.”

Reminiscing fondly, the original UAM member added, “Attorney Maddox brought us to the courtroom in cases, and taught about the double meanings of legalese.There are many students who went to law school because of Alton Maddox. He loved his people so much that he gave free classes to students.”

Nickey concluded, “After the Central Park Five case, his dear wife Leola sent up the summer camp at Peg Leg Bates Freedom Retreat in Kerhonkson, New York. There he taught our children how to defend themselves in court, and life skills with healthy food and fresh air. He was a magnificent man who left us a great blueprint for freedom to follow.”

Maddox associates told the AmNews that his son Charles Maddox will be taking the body of Alton Maddox back to Georgia. The AmNews learnt just before press time that there will be a viewing on Monday, May 1, at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 W 138th Street) with viewing at 9a.m., and service at 11 a.m.

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  1. Attorney Maddox was a great and courageous man. He endeavored to be an attorney who would provide strong legal advocacy on behalf of his Black clients at a time when New York City was an overtly racist city and bastion for racist public figures like Ed Koch, Donald Trump and Mario Cuomo, to name a few. He did not shrink away from calling racists out and continuously challenged them in the legal and public area. I admired him and his uncompromising leadership/ advocacy on behalf of Black NYers has been and will always be missed. Mr. Maddox was part of a “Golden Age” of strong, forthright, principled Black Leadership that we once had in New York City.

  2. Thank you! Alton Maddox the United African Movement lives. Your contribution to the movement of United Africans has touched my soul forever. As you dance in the ancestor realm we will call your name in Libation and share your contributions to the generations to come. Thank you for the life you lived and work you did to educate our people

  3. Attorney Maddox was the most truthful and powerful voice for people, of his time! Mr Maddox represented the disenfranchised people that deserved justice. We are all better off because of Attorney Alton Maddox and the United Africa Movement!

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