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Walter Gordon Dies at 103; A Mentor to Many, He Represented Billie Holiday and Ordinary Folks

Posted Apr 30, 2012 1:58 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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When Walter L. Gordon Jr. hung out his shingle in 1937 in Los Angeles, there were, he once estimated, only about 29 other black lawyers in the state.

Then, and for many years afterward, white law firms didn't hire black attorneys, and there was even a "whites only" clause in the constitution of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, veteran civil rights lawyer Leo Branton Jr. tells the Los Angeles Times.

Gordon, who died earlier this month at 103 years of age in California Hospital Medical Center, helped change that.

"He was a mentor to almost every lawyer who came along during the first five years I was in practice. He made a tremendous contribution," said Branton, now 90, who started his own Los Angeles law practice in 1949. "Young black lawyers had no place to go, had it not been for Walter Gordon."

During his 65 years working as an attorney, Gordon represented a wide array of clients, including railroad dining-car waiters facing a tax case for not reporting tips (an eventual settlement required each to pay $25), black sheriff's deputies who were charged for carrying weapons after making an off-duty arrest (they were exonerated, after Gordon used English common law in their defense) and Billie Holiday, the famous jazz singer.

She was criminally charged in the 1950s for allegedly assaulting a white patron who heckled her as she sang "Strange Fruit," an iconic minor-key lament in which she describes in detail the "strange and bitter crop" of lynched bodies hanging from a poplar tree.

A judge decided that the patron was a troublemaker and threw out the case, the newspaper recounts.

Gordon never lacked for clients, who could be seen lined up outside his office waiting for him, retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Beverly told the Times. "His personality was dynamic, plus he was good on the law. With that combination, he was unbeatable."

Gordon earned his law degree from Ohio State University in 1936.

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