Controversial Memorial for 'Turn 'Em Loose Bruce'

There's a new memorial for one of New York's most controversial judges — Bruce McMarion Wright, often referred to as "Turn 'Em Loose Bruce." Wright died earlier this year at age 86, and although considered weak on crime by some members of the police, he was loved within the African-American community.

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Bruce Wright was an outspoken African-American judge who drew the wrath of police union, the tabloid press and three mayors of New York City. He died earlier this year. He was 86. This weekend a memorial for Wright in Harlem drew a who's who of New York's black community. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH reporting:

To the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, he was Turn 'Em Loose Bruce, the judge who let poor and black defendants out on little or no bail, sometimes after being charged with violent crimes against cops. But to New York's African-American community, he was nothing less than a folk hero, a fearless black man willing to stand up to what many see as a racist, criminal justice system.

Judge BRUCE WRIGHT: I believe with almost religious zeal that I must honor the admonition of the last will and testament of Frederick Douglass, which was to all black people of this country: Agitate, agitate, agitate. And I don't think that my right to agitate stops at the courthouse door.

KALISH: Wright was appointed to the criminal bench in 1970, but four years later, he was transferred to civil court after the uproar over his bail policies. Attacks by the police union and the city's tabloids triggered a spirited defense by civil libertarians as well as black lawyers and activists.

(Soundbite of protesters)

Unidentified Man #1: Instead of being honored for his courage, compassion, integrity and ability, he is vilified and subjected to investigations.

Unidentified Man #2: 'Cause he's doing his job. He's doing his job the way they do they job, and they don't like it.

KALISH: Wright filed suit in federal court and was reinstated to the criminal bench. In an interview in 1987, upon the publication of his memoir, "Black Robes, White Justice," Wright looked back on the controversy over his bail policies...

Judge WRIGHT: Hardly anybody understood or was willing to honor the United States Constitution, especially the Eighth Amendment that says very plainly that bail shall not be excessive. The public, because of the tabloid press, I suppose, a general hysteria about crime, assumed that people who were charged were automatically guilty. And, therefore, I was accused of releasing dangerous criminals, although at that very moment, nobody had been convicted of anything.

KALISH: ...when his 10-year term as a criminal court judge expired in 1980.

(Soundbite of people)

KALISH: A crowd of 700 packed an auditorium at City College in Harlem this weekend to honor the life of Bruce Wright, the group of former and current black elected officials took the stage at the memorial. Former Manhattan borough President Percy Sutton revealed that he turned to Bruce Wright for legal advice and strategy when he served as a lawyer for Malcolm X. Former Mayor David Dinkins called Wright the conscience of the courts, and Congressman Charles Rangel told of the time he worked as a law clerk at the firm of Weaver, Evans, Wingate & Wright.

Representative CHARLES RANGEL (New York): I have been mentored by Bruce Wright all of my legal and political career, and my understanding of the law and the Constitution and morality and justice began when I knew Bruce Wright.

KALISH: Many at this weekend's memorial described Wright as a man who refused to be beaten by the racism he confronted in his life from the time he was refused a scholarship at Princeton University because he was black to his life in the segregated Army where he volunteered for combat and took part in the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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