Attorney-Activist Sues N.Y. for Alleged Exam Bias

Ed Gordon speaks with the migrant worker turned lawyer Willie Gary, now the lead attorney in a lawsuit against the state of New York over alleged discrimination in civil service exams. Marc Carey, spokesman for the New York's civil service office, denies the test is biased. Gary has built a practice on huge jury verdicts or settlements against companies including Walt Disney and Coca-Cola, and he continues his pro bono work on slave reparations.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The biggest obstacle to civil service advancement in New York state might be the qualifying exam. That's the contention of a class-action lawsuit filed by attorney Willie Gary.

Mr. WILLIE GARY (Attorney): Many people are working for people that they trained. They head departments and people that work for them are making more money than they are because of this system they have of grading people. You know, grade me based on what you want me to do. Test me based on my qualifications for the job.

GORDON: Tell us specifically what is discriminatory about this test.

Mr. GARY: Well, number one, the battery test, it has no significance whatsoever in terms of qualifying a person for the job. It's a test that's out in left field. And if you make a score on the math test and they have you in the history class, why not test you on history and opposed to giving you a math test? And EEOC said it was not by accident, it was orchestrated and designed to hold blacks and Hispanics back.

Mr. MARC CAREY (Spokesman, New York Civil Service Department): The promotion test battery is an award-winning test that is intended to increase the flexibility in the hiring of managerial-type positions.

GORDON: That's Marc Carey, spokesman for New York's Civil Service Department. Carey says the test has been filtered for racial and cultural bias.

Mr. CAREY: We feel it meets all the standards. It's a very well-regarded test that we think is going to serve the overall public and especially minority job seekers as years go by because it's important that--you know, we think it's very important that more minorities move into supervisory-type positions. And this is one of the methods that we use to do that. I mean, it's won awards for a reason.

GORDON: But attorney Gary and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say the test is unfair to blacks and Hispanics.

Mr. GARY: The federal government has investigated that same excuse or position that they've taken. And they flat out said you are off base big time, no doubt about it. And not only that, but then we had a federal judge said it a few weeks ago in his order and saying that there's all the reason in the world here to feel that there's discrimination and that needs to be stopped. And he certified the whole class.

GORDON: Willie, talk to me about, as you look at the canvas now, whether or not you see this going full throttle and have to play itself all the way out or do you think that the state is going to have to fold?

Mr. GARY: Well, I think the state should step up to the plate. They should do the right thing. They can never make the people whole, but in a small way, they can reach out to them and say, `Hey, we know it was wrong, and we're not going to condone this anymore. We're going to step up to the plate and try as best as we can to rectify the situation, to compensate those who were entitled to compensation for the injustice that they've suffered over the last 10 years as a result of this kind of activity.'

GORDON: Willie, we should also note that some 18 other states have been looked at in relation to this kind of testing. It's not solely New York.

Mr. GARY: That's right. And that's why we think it's so important--we thought it was so important to start here because this great state of New York and a lot of great people here in the city of New York and throughout the state that believe in fairness. I know that. This is not about a state that's about complete racism and we're not saying that. But to start here in New York, I think it's going to send a message, it's going to send a message to those 18 other states that they need to get in line and they need to clean up that situation because it's not good for America.

GORDON: Gary and I continued our conversation, talking about his life, growing up the son of a sharecropper to his rise as one of the nation's most pre-eminent litigators. He's won some of the largest jury awards in the country with settlements from corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Disney. We also talked about his role as the CEO of the fledgling Black Family Channel.

Mr. GARY: We put a lot of money in it, but compared to most people going into a cable network, we've been blessed to, you know, get a lot done for the money that we put out.

GORDON: And we should note the initial want was to really strike a balance for the image of black America. We hear so many complaints about the negative imagery of black Americans on television today and the want for this station is to, while not knocking anyone, to say, `Here is what strikes a balance.'

Mr. GARY: That's right.

GORDON: `There are other images of black Americans...'

Mr. GARY: That's right.

GORDON: `...that you need to see.'

Mr. GARY: That's right. Because it is so important for our people and young kids to know that one of the biggest pieces of news that we've had on our network was reporting this young bright kid that went all the way through grade school, through middle school, then high school with all A's. That was a major, major piece, man, you know. But things like that you would never, never get otherwise. You know, it's always the negative aspects of the community. We wanted to change that. We wanted to bring about some positiveness and--at what our people see of us and the images that we have of people, like yourself. People--I mean, like Johnnie Cochran and we can go on and on, people that are doing things in their respective fields. Our people, more than anybody, need to know that it can be done. And the only way they can do that is to know that it's being done. And we have an obligation to make sure that happens.

GORDON: Let me move onto something else, Willie, that I know you've been engaged in for quite some time and get the status of where you and the team of other lawyers--and unfortunately, you've lost one of...

Mr. GARY: No doubt about it.

GORDON: ...a great member of your team, and that's my main man, Johnnie Cochran. We'll get into a remembrance of Johnnie from you in just a moment, but that's the whole question of reparation...

Mr. GARY: Right.

GORDON: ...and where African-Americans on a whole stand. Talk to me about where you are on that.

Mr. GARY: Yeah. It's going to be a long fight. It's no quick resolution to it. There are a lot of issues we're dealing with. Thank God we have Dr. Charles Ogletree from Harvard University who is helping to coordinate that litigation and keep us all together. Our firm has been there not only with our support, you know, financially, we've been there. We've given our money and our time and that we're committed to that. And I've always said to all the lawyers working on reparations case, `It's not about money.' As a matter of fact, I've got most of them committed to charging no fees. And Johnnie and I were the first two to say, `Look, we don't want any fees. We just want justice. We want to make a wrong right.' And thank God we got Dr. Charles Ogletree; that guy is in the trenches every day, I mean, seeing to it that we stay focused on that issue.

GORDON: Yeah. Chuck, one of the regulars on this program, though he's taking a little summertime off over there on that island they like to stay on in the summer. I have heard you talk about being the son of a sharecropper. Often that becomes a PR tool, but with you, I think I can safely say it's genuine, that you have not ever forgotten your roots, that you appreciate where you came from. You always keep that forward. What is it about Willie Gary that allows you to do that where others have lost?

Mr. GARY: Well, Ed, I just feel that it's so important that we, you know, never forget from whence we've come, never forget the bridge that brought you over. As a matter of fact, if you really want to be successful, you know, just be about the business of pulling someone along with you. And you're going to always--you know, you're going to excel, you're going to succeed. And, well, you know, my story is one that, you know, is just--and sometimes it's hard to believe. I just thank God every day that, you know, I got out of the sugarcane fields of south Florida, the corn and bean fields of the Carolinas, working every day in 110-degree temperatures, insects biting, water every three or four hours and that was by the man who brought it in and you had to wait in line to get that.

So when I look--I have--you know, I've never forgotten those things. And sometimes I wake up and I say, `Lord, I thank you,' you know. But more than that, I know that, you know, I didn't come out of that because I was so smart or so great. I didn't get away from that. It was because I rode on the shoulders of a lot of people that gave up to give me a chance. They didn't, you know, make it, but they fought, and they died, some of them, you know. So I understand all of that, and I just ask God every day, `Never, never let me forget, you know, that I didn't get here on my own. And I have an obligation to reach back and help somebody else.'

GORDON: Well, indeed, you've done that throughout the years, and we'll continue to watch this lawsuit to see how it unfolds. Willie, before we let you go, I want to give you an opportunity to reminisce about a man that both of us knew very well, and, obviously, we lost him in the last few months. But just talk to me, particularly for someone who understands the field that you both grew up, fought and thrived in, and that is what Johnnie Cochran meant to not only the legal field and black America but to America, quite frankly.

Mr. GARY: Without a doubt, you know, Johnnie has impacted this nation in a way that, you know, few of us could really understand and appreciate it. And asides from being arguably the greatest trial lawyer that ever set foot in America, just a good decent human being, you know, people turning to each other. You know, with Johnnie, I had the opportunity to work with him, and it's amazing, man, as to, you know, how committed that guy is and was to just, you know, fighting for people, being a voice for people that didn't have a voice, and money wasn't an issue. I mean, Johnnie--people don't understand it, Johnnie worked a lot of years, man. He made no money. He made no money. Johnnie championed a lot of fights where it wasn't about money, there was no money, but he did it because it was the right thing to do.

And I'm just blessed that I had the opportunity down in Orlando, Florida, where we took on the mouse, Mickey, and Johnnie was there with me. And we fought that case and got a $240 million verdict. And Johnnie and I were standing there together and I was proud to be with him, and I'll never forget it. The jurors sent a note out to the judge just before they brought in the verdict. We didn't know what the verdict was going to be, so everybody's sitting there. You're sitting on pins.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. GARY: You're waiting to see what's going to happen. The man--you know, all this time, years of fighting and fighting and fighting and you're taking on Disney, of all people, this powerful corporation. And we're sitting there in Mickey's own back yard in Orlando. And so they said, `We have a verdict, but we have a question,' and we said, `Oh, my God. What is the question?' Because, you know, you're always thinking. And the question was: We have a verdict, but we wanted to know whether or not Mr. Cochran can wait 15 minutes to take pictures with us? I said...

GORDON: You knew right then, right?

Mr. GARY: ...`I knew what this verdict is going to be.' So we kind of had a feeling that maybe that verdict was going to be in our corner.

GORDON: Willie Gary, always good to see you, man. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. GARY: Thanks for having me, Ed.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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