Michael Eric Dyson’s Black History Month All Stars

All-Star #6: Robert N.C. Nix Jr.

Over the last several years in Philadelphia, we have witnessed the erection of the first monument to a Black man in our city, abolitionist Octavius Catto; the first mural to a legal and civic giant, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.; a community effort to rename a street from Taney — named for the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision — for Caroline LeCount, Philly’s own Rosa Parks; and a school renamed from racist president Andrew Jackson to former slave-turned-educator Fanny Coppin Jackson.

Like these people, to me, the All Stars are the everyday folks who are doing the heavy lifting for their race and culture: Teachers, sanitation workers, people who work the traffic lights and run nurseries — both for kids and for your grass — the people who are clerks in local stores. They are the preachers who reach masses of people on a daily basis; the writers whose praises don’t get as well-sung as they should; the social activists who are out there trying to make a better life for us even when we don’t understand what’s at stake.

These are the people Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to as the “ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.”


Robert N.C. Nix Jr.


Robert N.C. Nix Jr.



Robert N.C. Nix, Jr. was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, the son of Robert N.C. Nix, Sr., the first African American member of Congress. 

Nix attended Central High school, then graduated from Villanova as the valedictorian before attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, Nix served in the Army for two years, then as the Deputy Attorney General.

After joining his father’s law firm, Nix, Rhodes and Nix, Nix focused on civil rights law, representing clients such as United Neighbors, which worked for improvements for the West Philadelphia neighborhood. In his role at the firm, Nix became a member of the Philadelphia Mayor’s advisory committee on civil rights.

Nix’s judicial career took off when he was elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 1967. In 1972, after being appointed the year before by Governor Milton Shapp, Nix was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In 1984, Nix began his 12-year tenure as the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. With this role, Nix became the first Black chief justice of any state’s highest court.


  • First Black chief justice of any state’s highest court
  • First Vlack justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Final Word: After his election Nix said, “It shows that the people want ideas, that they are not interested in race, creed or color. I’m particularly impressed by the vote in the central counties. It is just unbelievable that a Philadelphia candidate won there. And a Black man!”

More on Nix: Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Robert N.C. Nix, Jr.; The New York Times, “R. N. C. Nix Jr., 75, Groundbreaking Judge” 

Reporting by Aly Kerrigan and Ethan Young.

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