mark back home in south central L.A.
Setting up shop in the offices of The Eagle, the community newspaper
where he worked as a youngster, Gordon soon made a name for himself as a man who could
protect the interests of black citizens in an overwhelmingly white judicial system.
This past fall, Gordon was honored by the State Bar for more than six
decades of active law practice, receiving a special certificate and acknowledgment from
many who have known his advocacy best.
It was tough at first, remembers Gordon, because clients had
the fear that I didnt have the contacts and personal touches with the judges.
It was especially unnerving, he said, when a judge looked down from the bench and said
Hello, Jim! to his white opposing counsel.
However, his practice thrived and he eventually moved to 41st and
Central Avenue, adding more and more young attorneys to the office. It was not uncommon to
see a line of clients waiting outside Gordons law offices. We were so busy we
had two shifts of secretaries; one for daytime and another for the night, he said.
Gordon worked with some of the top names in the black legal
community, many of whom went on to become judges. Although he primarily represented
average residents in the area, he was often called upon to take care of celebrities such
as singer Billie Holliday and members of Duke Ellingtons band.
You know, with Duke Ellingtons men, marijuana was
prevalent and the chief cause of their arrest, said Gordon. They used
marijuana to increase their time more
And Billie Holliday was personable, said Gordon, but
when she sang Strange Fruit (an anti-lynching song), she would invariably get
hecklers. One evening, says Gordon, it just got too much for Holliday and she was
charged with stabbing a heckler. But the case was dismissed because the heckler
refused to give any information.
Asked about changes in the past 60 years that have had an impact on
the legal profession, Gordon mentions several. Nowadays, the rights of indigent
clients are more scrupulously taken care of than previously, he says. And
clients are more intelligent; they know more about the law.
One of the most admirable developments that Gordon cites
is the increase of women in the profession. Previously it was an oddity to see
female attorneys in the courtroom, he said. But there are so many now practicing as
public defenders and district attorneys, when you see them now you can anticipate
competence. I admire it. Its a new day for women.
Today, working out of his home, Gordon still makes court appearances,
handling criminal matters. His wife of 50 years, Clara, likes to accompany him to court.
One of 115 attorneys who have been members of the State Bar for 60 years or more, he says
he manages to stay fit by walking vigorously.
Son Walter Gordon III, also an attorney, is amazed at his fathers
stamina and awed at the reputation he has established in the black community. He is
still getting young clients, says Gordon. And now he is representing the
great-great-grandchildren of his original clients.
My father is a charmer and people love him. He is a master
psychologist and hes seen it all.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Beverly, who is
researching a book on the history of the black legal profession in Los Angeles, notes that
there were a number of skilled black orators in the area during Gordons heyday.
Gordon is one of the last tie-ins to that era, says Beverly, adding that his
goal is to capture stories and anecdotes from lawyers like Gordon before they are lost
forever. Renowned black lawyers such as E. Burton Ceruti, Thomas Griffith and Hugh Macbeth
were popular with area residents, who gladly paid to hear a rousing speech from any of
Lloyd Griffith was the best speaker in those days, says
the elder Gordon, and Willis O. Tyler? I would pay money to hear him.
Gordon himself took pride in his oratorical skills. His son remembers
him always working to improve his diction and how he stressed the importance of the
English language as a tool to show the white legal establishment that they were playing on
an intellectually level field.
Not sure if his father really did it, the younger Gordon remembers
his dad telling him that he practiced his enunciation skills with the classic Greek method
speaking with rocks in his mouth.
My dad was one of the first black lawyers and is still one of
the best, says the younger Gordon. He prides himself in being honest with
clients. He is fair with all people and he is very proud. He is a lawyers lawyer.