California Bar Journal
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Going strong
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Continued from Page 1
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Walter Gordon, 92, reflects on his 63 years of practice in Los Angelesmark 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 didn’t 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 Gordon’s 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 Ellington’s band.

“You know, with Duke Ellington’s men, marijuana was prevalent and the chief cause of their arrest,” said Gordon. “They used marijuana to increase their time —  more rapid instrumentation.”

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. It’s 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 father’s 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 he’s 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 Gordon’s 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 them.

“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 lawyer’s lawyer.”