Crockett, George William, Jr.
Crockett, George William, Jr.
George William Crockett Jr.'s political career spanned almost six decades. He was an attorney, a judge, and a leading Civil Rights and Labor Union activist. At the age of 71, he was tapped to represent Michigan's 13th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. His ten-year stint in Congress was marked by many milestones and much controversy.
"No other professional group bears a responsibility as great as that of the legal profession for ridding our law and our body politic of this cancerous growth of racism."
—George W. Crockett
Crockett was born August 10, 1909, in Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up in the South when racial Segregation was a fact of everyday life, an experience that fueled his commitment to correct injustices. He attended public schools and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1931. He studied law at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1934. He was admitted to the Florida bar in the same year and began his legal career in Jacksonville.
In 1939, Crockett became the first African American lawyer in the U.S. department of labor. He was one of the first hearing examiners in the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Crockett's early involvement in Labor Law led to his founding and directing the Fair Employment Practices Department of the International United Auto Workers (UAW) Union in 1944. He also served as treasurer and associate general counsel to the UAW and as assistant to the union's secretary-treasurer.
After leaving the UAW, Crockett returned to private practice with the law firm of Goodman, Crockett, Eden, and Rob, where he was a partner from 1946 to 1966. He remained active in the civil rights and labor movements throughout his career. In the 1949 Foley Square trial, he defended several members of the U.S. Communist Party against charges of un-American activities. (United States v. Foster, 9 F.R.D. 367 [S.D.N.Y.]). Crockett's clients, along with many codefendants, were charged with conspiracy to advocate the overthrow or destruction of the government by force or violence and conspiracy to organize the Communist Party as a society advocating such overthrow or destruction. During the trial, he railed against what he thought were the judge's abuses of his clients' rights. His refusal to back down earned him a Contempt citation (United States v. Sacher, 9 F.R.D. 394 [S.D.N.Y.]). His conviction and sentence for contempt were upheld on appeal, 182 F.2d 416 (2nd Cir.), and he spent four months in the penitentiary at Ashland, Kentucky, in 1952. While serving his prison term, Crockett wrote to his son that prison is a good place to learn patience because the relentless passage of time teaches the value of persistence. Crockett's patience was severely tested after his return from prison when he was ostracized and forced to fight a move to disbar him. Because of his involvement in the Foley Square trial, the labor movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, he was labeled a communist sympathizer. However, in 1963, when President john f. kennedy planned a meeting of civil rights lawyers at the White House, Crockett's name was on the list of those the president wanted to attend. To be allowed into the White House, Crockett had to be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which finally granted him a security clearance.
Crockett served as a judge of the Detroit Recorder's (Criminal) Court from 1966 to 1978. His years on the bench included a term as presiding judge in 1974. He retired from the recorder's court in 1978, but soon returned to public service. In 1980, Representative Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.), one of the few people who had befriended Crockett upon his return from prison in 1952, was himself sentenced to three years in prison, for accepting kickbacks from his congressional staff. Diggs endorsed Crockett to replace him, and, in a special election to fill the vacancy, Crockett was elected to the post.
At the age of 71, Crockett launched into his new career in Congress. He continued to take controversial positions on issues ranging from African Americans in the foreign service to decriminalization of drugs. He was arrested in 1984 at a demonstration protesting South Africa's policy of apartheid. In 1985, when tensions between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East were high and the United States officially supported Israel, Crockett invited a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to brief members of Congress on the PLO's views about conditions in the Middle East. The invitation was denounced by some members of the House, and, after intervention by the Secretary of State, the visit was canceled.
In 1986, Crockett criticized President Ronald Reagan's administration for not appointing more African American ambassadors. He noted that the number of African Americans in the foreign service had declined during the years Reagan had been president. He used his position as chair of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Activities to initiate a hearing on racism in appointments to the foreign service. The result was a promise from the secretary of state that the State Department would pursue a goal of appointing more members of minority groups to foreign service positions. In 1987, President Reagan appointed Crockett to the position of public delegate to the United Nations.
In addition to chairing the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Activities, Crockett served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Committee on the Judiciary, and the Select Committee on Aging. His final controversial act as a representative came in 1989 when he became the first member of Congress to recommend publicly the decriminalization of drug possession. Stating, "Our courts are burdened down with these drug cases and there is nothing they can do about it," Crockett called for decriminalization as "the only solution." He was sharply criticized by many members of the administration, including William J. Bennett, who was the director of federal drug policy.
Crockett retired from public life at the end of his fifth term in the House, which ended Januar 3, 1991, but remained one of Detroit's best-known civil rights leaders. In 1992, he surprised many when he openly backed Dennis Archer in the Detroit mayoral race, and encouraged longtime friend Coleman Young to step down. In 1995, Crockett's story was recounted in a chapter of Black Judges on Justice. Crockett died on September 7, 1997, in Washington, D.C, after suffering a stroke. He had been battling bone cancer.
Gordon Press. 1991. Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1989. Bowling Green Station, N.Y.: Gordon Press.
McGraw, Bill. 1997. "George Crockett is Dead at 88: Activist and Judge Stood for the Underdog." Detroit Free Press (September 8). Available online at <www.freep.com/news/obituaries/qcrock8.htm> (accessed June 29, 2003).
U.S. Government Printing Office. 1988. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, 1774–1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, Linn. 1995.
Black Judges on Justice: Perspectives from the Bench. New York: New Press.