This week at the venerable Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, we funeralized the “Attorney at War” Alton Henry Maddox. It was a glorious homegoing celebration, befitting a revered leader of weight and substance. It was well attended by an enthusiastic congregation that represented the gorgeous mosaic that our African American community is: nationalists, Pan-Africanists, conservatives, church folks, Muslims, etc. 

The historic setting, the powerful tributes by our village elders, the insightful eulogy delivered by a former comrade in the courtroom all contributed to the profundity of this sacred moment of consecration of a life well-lived. Yet many of the people who benefited most from the bold and uncompromising advocacy of Attorney Maddox were not present, including New York’s Black political leaders—some of them probably don’t even know that he passed. He fought in this city and state, years ago, before many of them were born, so they could be in the seats that they are in now. 

Alton Maddox came to New York at a hopeful time in America, particularly in the South. In his native province, Blacks, under the leadership of mayors such as Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and Marion S. Barry in Washington, D.C., who were making tremendous progress both economically and politically. 

Attorney Maddox and his wife Leola could have settled in Fulton County, the District of Columbia, or Prince George’s County, a few miles from where he earned his college degree at Howard University. Had they purchased a home in those southern communities, they would have become part of the growing Black elite that lived comfortable and meaningful lives, respected and safe in that region that had laid its racist soul bare during the Civil Rights Movement, repented and found redemption, finally sharing resources with Blacks who had been previously excluded. 

RELATED: Alton Maddox, Jr., the ‘People’s Lawyer’ and Attorney-at-War, dead at 77

Indeed, the “New South” was, by the time Maddox settled in New York, already a more hospitable place for Blacks and continues to draw thousands of Black New Yorkers today annually. Maddox would have been comfortable there. No doubt he would have been elected or appointed to the highest courts, or perhaps had a white-shoe law firm on Peachtree in Atlanta or K Street in DC. He might have been in the Barry administration, he might have even become the Maynard or the Marion of those more hospitable communities had he settled there in the 1970s, but he decided to stay up north after his graduation from Boston College Law School. 

Instead, they settled in a New York City that, in the 1970s, was a city with tremendous racial ethnic strife that masked virulent racism; a city unlike its southern neighbors that were healing from their histories of racial segregation and violence, largely because they had been forced to deal with them by the Civil Rights Movement 20 years before. 

New York, on the other hand, had not made racial progress, because it would not even acknowledge it had racism, despite hundreds of years of evidence. New York preferred to view itself as the city that gave a lot of money to the Civil Rights Movement and was often a staging ground for New Yorkers to travel south to deal with the racial apartheid system behind the cotton curtain. 

Yet New York had ignored its own. In New York in the 1970s, the schools were the most segregated in America (and still are now). Black children were routinely beaten and run home from so-called integrated schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens. The New York that Alton Maddox settled in during the 1970s had radio talk show hosts like Bob Grant who daily, publicly, loudly referred to Black women as brood sows, Martin Luther King Jr. as a scumbag, and the death of Robert Nesta Marley as something to celebrate. Willie Turks was brutally murdered in Bensonhurst and, worst of all for Alton Maddox, was the fact that no New York City police officer had ever been prosecuted for murdering a Black citizen. Even though Maddox had come north, he had gone back in time, and for him—a race man—this state of affairs was   unacceptable.   

Maddox decided that his life would be dedicated to leading a civil rights struggle in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in New York City, a place that was supposed to be too cosmopolitan to need one. Eleanor Bumpus, Michael Griffith, Central Park 5 (Exonerated 5), Cedric Sandiford, Yusef Hawkins, and many others were proof to him that, indeed, New York needed its own civil rights struggle. 

From the streets of Howard Beach and Bensonhurst to the courtrooms in lower Manhattan, Alton Henry Maddox was a force to be reckoned with—a Black man so traumatized by the southern racism of his youth that he simply couldn’t allow the palpable institutional racism he observed in New York go unchallenged. Indeed, because of his sensitivity to the racism of his native region, he could easily perceive the unacceptably high levels of racism that far too many Black New Yorkers had come to accept as simply life in the Big Apple. He demonstrated a level of fearlessness that gave heart to many to fight back against systemic racism in America’s so-called bastion of liberalism and progressivism. 

Our legal system demands that attorneys vigorously defend the interest of their clients. Alton did that, even losing his license to practice in the process. For a legal eagle like Alton, losing his license was an assuredly great blow. He was a lawyer personified—it was his self-identity, it was his core. Yet his irreducible essence, even more fundamental than lawyer, was a Black man! 

He would not surrender his dignity, he would not even play by the rules, because he concluded that the rules themselves were unjust. He suffered; he paid a very high price. His head was bloodied, but not bowed. He showed us integrity, strength, dignity, and how to advocate uncompromisingly against systemic racism. Sometimes you just can’t play ball. Many disagreed with his stance, but we must acknowledge it, and respect it. 

Today, at anti-police brutality rallies across the city, it is not uncommon to hear young Blacks, whites, Asians, people of every political ideology, lifestyle choice, gender identity, shouting the slogan of the New York movement: “No justice, No peace.” Oh, if only they could have heard Alton Maddox proclaim it—no one did it like him! 

Today is clearly a better place for Blacks, with unprecedented political empowerment in the courts, in the legislature, in City Hall, in the City Council. Young African Americans and their allies of other races frequently demonstrate and can be heard shouting “No Justice, No Peace.” Had more of them been present at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Monday to honor the man who, through his sacrifice, made that statement real, they would also have learned that it is far more than a mere chant. It is a commitment that Alton H. Maddox made and one he remained wedded to, for better or worse, for richer or for poor, and in sickness and in health, ’til death did he part. 

Admittedly, it will be hard for them, for us, to be quite like Brother Maddox, but by acknowledging his commitment, he remains a North Star for us to weigh our efforts by. Rest in peace, Attorney at War, Alton H. Maddox.

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