Revealing my own hero
October 24, 2007
The kids in one of my son’s ninth-grade classes were asked to write essays on their hero. With two exceptions, they all picked Al Gore. That’s easy: He was in the news this week. Only a kid with my son’s backbone would debate whether all of the science in Al Gore’s presentation was correct, whether he really would be a stronger candidate than Hillary, or whether his loss in 2000 wasn’t at least in part his own fault.
But the question of picking a hero remained. So he asked me who mine was.
That’s probably why I found myself dreaming of Williams vs. Walker-Thomas Furniture Store. Most people dream of romance and adventure. On occasion, I do, too. But when I go to bed thinking of heroes, I’m more likely to dream of an obscure furniture store in Washington, D.C., that used to take advantage of poor people who had nowhere else to go to buy tables and chairs, or refrigerators and stoves. So they went to Walker-Thomas Furniture, which promised credit for everyone, with a catch. The catch was that the interest rates were higher than anyone would pay in any other part of town, and repossession came faster than it ever would from Hecht’s or Woodward and Lothrop if they missed even a single payment. Did I mention that all the customers were black?
That’s the way it was until a man named J. Skelly Wright wrote a decision I read about in my first year of law school. I’d never heard of Judge Wright, and when I started reading, it was just one more case to be briefed by morning. But this one was different. The Uniform Commercial Code, one of the most boring documents I encountered in law school, prohibited unconscionable commercial transactions. No one had ever thought that meant charging poor people usurious interest rates for goods they desperately needed and then repossessing them for even a single nonpayment, as explained in very small writing.
Judge Wright thought that was exactly what it prohibited, and he wrote a decision that outraged many in the business community for its audacity in seeking to regulate arms-length commercial transactions between willing sellers and desperate buyers.
“What do you think of that?” my then-professor asked the class. I thought I might have found my hero.
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Long before he protected poor people from being treated like dirt in furniture stores, J. Skelly Wright, a self-described “good Catholic boy” from New Orleans, a night-law-school graduate, a working-class kid who took seriously what he learned in school and in church, had been appointed to the federal district court by Harry Truman while still in his 30s because he was the only guy around who thought every ballot was supposed to be counted, once. But no one expected this good ole boy to decide that if separate but equal was inherently unequal, it was his job as a federal judge to order the first blacks to attend LSU Law School, to integrate the New Orleans school systems.
The Klan burned crosses on his lawn so often his son once told me that when his parents went out, his dad told him to just ignore them unless they got too close to the house, in which case he should call the fire department.
He didn’t set out to be a hero. He just believed it was his job to do what was right, to enforce the law. By the early ’60s, Richard Russell, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had told the president’s men that Skelly Wright would never be confirmed for the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covered the South, or for the Supreme Court. But if the new president wanted to get him out of Louisiana and put him on the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., he’d skip the hearing that day. That is what President Kennedy did.
I was Judge Wright’s second female clerk. He had to tell me that his good friend William Brennan, then the most liberal justice on the United States Supreme Court, a job my judge would have loved and could never have, wouldn’t be hiring me because I was a woman. He sat with me as I tried not to cry.
A few months later we were assigned an important rape case. The fancy law firm representing the defendant was trying to uphold the corroboration requirement that Judge Wright’s closest friend on the court had championed. I came close to tears again. I explained how I’d been raped and there had been no corroboration, and the rule that would have kept this case from the jury would have kept mine away as well. This one’s for you, he told me. It was the day I came to understand that lemons could be made into lemonade.
He never got rich. I used to joke years later that he was the only person I knew who drove a car worse than mine: I drove a Maverick, he drove a Pinto. As the Supreme Court changed, he got reversed more and more often. But he never stopped fighting.
The year I worked for him was the year my world fell apart: I lost my father, my family was in shambles, I didn’t have a dime to call my own, and I could barely remember why I had become a lawyer. It was also the year my world came back together, under the kind and gentle tutelage of a man who never wore his courage on his sleeve, never expected, or received, much acclaim but taught me what it was to believe in something enough to put your life and your heart on the line for it every day.
I spent Christmas that year with the Wrights. It was the finest Christmas of my life. For it was his soul that made J. Skelly Wright a hero. He never got a Nobel Prize, but truth be told, he didn’t need one.