I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:
“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Leon Higginbotham, Jr.
Leon Higginbotham, Jr.
(February 25, 1928 - December 14, 1998)
A Federal Judge appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977—the first African American to hold the position—Leon Higginbotham was a jurist, a scholar and an orator. He was a voice for the downtrodden who never shied away from a fight. Two weeks before his death, he testified before Congress against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. When Congressman Bob Barr made reference to “the real America,” Higginbotham said: “My father was a laborer. My mother was a domestic. And I climbed the ladder and I didn’t come to where I am today through some magical vein. So I am willing to match you, any hour, any day, in terms of the perception of the real America.”
- Antioch College, B.A. 1949
- Yale University Law School, LL.B, 1952
- Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia, 1953-54 under D.A. Richardson Dilworth (the first black lawyer to argue in the Court of Common Pleas)
- President, Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, 1960-1962
- Appointed by President Johnson to Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1964
- Elevated by President Carter to the United States Court of Appeals in 1977, where he served until 1993
- Founder of SAFE, the South Africa Free Election Fund, and ultimately helped draft a new constitution for post-apartheid South Africa
“Judge Higginbotham’s work and the example he set made a critical contribution to the course of the rule of law in the United States and a difference in the lives of African Americans, and indeed the lives of all Americans,” said Nelson Mandela. “But his influence also crossed borders and inspired many who fought for freedom and equality in other countries.”