Judge: Whites, Step Aside

Atlanta Judge Marvin Arrington wanted to speak privately with African American defendants in his courtroom. To do so, he asked all the white people to leave, a move some have called racially insensitive. Judge Harrington explains why he believes it was necessary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, a look at the performing arts high school in the nation's capital and its leaders' "Hail Mary" play to restore the program to greatness. But first, we want to talk to you about one man's frustration. His name is Marvin Arrington, and throughout his long career, he's made headlines. He was one of Emory University's first full-time African-American law students.

He went on to become one of Atlanta's top lawyers and president of the Atlanta City Council. And now, as a Fulton County Superior Court Judge, he is making headlines again. Dismayed by a constant stream of black defendants in his courtroom, Judge Arrington took the unusual step of asking everybody but the African-American defendants to step out of his courtroom one day so he could have a fireside chat with the young men about their behavior.

But some have criticized the move as racially insensitive. He wrote about it in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week and he's here with us to talk us now about this. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Judge MARVIN S. ARRINGTON (Fulton County Superior Court, Atlanta, Georgia): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So if you would, take us back to that day. What was going on?

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, I was - have my plea arraignment calendar every Thursday, and that's when, you know, defendants come in and they negotiate pleas and we deal with motions, status of cases, and whether or not it's on the final plea calendar. "Final plea calendar" simply means on that particular day, if it's on that particular calendar, and that's the last day you can negotiate a plea. If you don't negotiate on that particular day, you may plead guilty thereafter, but any sentence imposed is at my particular discretion.

And when we got through calling the calendar and it was the same old cases - murder, child molestation, robbery, home invasion, aggravated assault. And I just thought about what, you know, the great writer, Nikki Giovanni, said. Lord, will we ever see the light? And I just said, at some point in time, someone need to speak to these people, whether they're young or - and just tell them, all this violence has to stop, cannot continue to go. And I guess what really got me upset, a father had had sex with his two daughters...

MARTIN: Mm.

Judge ARRINGTON: And another instance, that was a neighbor of mine who was out feeding his dog and somebody shot and killed them for a hundred-dollar watch. A young man from Tallahassee, Florida was marched out and killed by some friends of his because he had went to purchase some marijuana and he got ripped off by the seller. And when he came back, he simply said to them, I got ripped off. Here's $500. We get paid on Friday. I'll give you another $500. And they basically said to him, if you don't get that money up tonight, we're going to blow your brains out. And so he called his mom down in Tallahassee. Long story short, she called her brother, who was a minister out in DeKalb County, and asked him if he would get the money.

And he got on the phone and said, don't kill him. I will bring you $5,000, but the day is Sunday. There is no financial institution open, and I don't have that type of money in my pocket. And with that, they heard several gun shots, and they shot and killed him, shot him in the head three or four times.

MARTIN: While they were - while his family was listening.

Judge ARRINGTON: On the phone.

MARTIN: On the phone.

Judge ARRINGTON: And I just said, my God. Will we ever stop? We are executing each other. They appeal before me. They can't read. They cannot write, have no character, no morals, or what have you. And I just exploded.

MARTIN: It wasn't planned.

Judge ARRINGTON: I basically...

MARTIN: You didn't come in that day thinking, I'm going to do this. This simply occurred to you?

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, no. It was not programmed at all. Spontaneous - because somebody has to say something, and if people like myself don't say something, who's going to say it? You know, the ministers are silent on it. You know, we get in church and we pray every Sunday, and before we can get out of church and get in the car, there's another crime, a home invasion.

Can you imagine sitting in your home and someone come in and kick the door down while you are eating with your family? And they blow your brains out. And you know, enough is enough. As Fannie Lou Hamer said at the 1968 Democratic convention, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." And I guess I was sick and tired of being tired on that particular day, and I just simply said to them, you need to govern yourself accordingly. You need to get in school. You need to learn a trade. You learn how to do something that is constructive, so that you can be a better you.

MARTIN: Did you clear the courtroom of everybody but the defendants? I mean, you had some security there, I assume, right?

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, I always have security, but...

MARTIN: Sure. But did you ask the white people to step out? Or how did you exactly express what it is that you wanted to happen?

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, you just said it for me. I said, would the white defendants and all whites excuse themselves? I want to talk to my brothers one-on-one. And they excused themselves, and I really asked myself a thousand times. I don't see what I'm doing - did wrong. If asking some people not to kill, shoot, you know, to have sex with your daughter, to rape, if that is wrong, I don't want to do right, because I see that as my role, and I said it to my children.

Every day, you know, I would carry them to school and say, give me your best today. Daddy loves you, you know? And they went on to do extremely well, and I think sometimes, I would put out my arms around these young people and tell them where they're going wrong, you know, that will kind of help out, you know?

MARTIN: Some people say, look - in fact, you got mixed reaction to this.

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, I didn't get mixed reaction.

MARTIN: Well...

Judge ARRINGTON: The telephone calls are running nine-to-one, saying thank you. Thank you, thank you. I went into a local grocery store the other night, Publix, in my neighborhood, where I was literally mobbed by people walking up to me, putting their arms around me, saying, right on. You know, so I don't know where the media's coming from...

MARTIN: I think it's...

Judge ARRINGTON: About my being criticized, you know, I get a call from, you know...

MARTIN: There are people who are out there - no, no, just let me help you. There's people writing to the newspaper saying they understand what you were trying to do, but they make two points. One is, they say that, you know, white folks do wrong, too, and they could've appreciated that lecture. And the second point they make is that if, perhaps, a white judge had told all the black folks to leave the courtroom so he could talk to the white folks separately, that that would have raised hackles. So that - that's the argument. So what do you say?

Judge ARRINGTON: My argument, in response to that, the following week, I called them in and I blessed all of my white, black, you know, Hispanic, everybody that was in the courtroom. So what wrong has been done? I have to do what I do best, OK? They tried to stop Gandhi when he started on his journey, and they criticized him and they criticize me, and if I have done wrong, there will be another election, and people can voice their opinion, you know?

MARTIN: What happen - how did they - the young men in the courtroom react when you spoke your piece?

Judge ARRINGTON: Oh, they stood up and applauded.

MARTIN: Really?

Judge ARRINGTON: Mothers, defendants, and everybody applauded, and my sheriff said to me, Judge, you know, everybody could have benefit from that speech. And I said, you're absolutely right, and next Thursday, I give the same speech. But it's like the old black minister who came in and kept giving the same sermon over and over again. And the elders went to him and said, my God, have we made a mistake in hiring you? You're giving the same message every Sunday. And he said, well, I give the same message and you all go out in the streets and do the same thing. And when you all change, I'm going to change. And when they change, I'm going to change.

MARTIN: You felt that the young black men needed to hear this more, at that particular time?

Judge ARRINGTON: I mean, walking around with their pants hanging off their behind, got hats turned all right - I mean, left and right, shirts out, you know, cell phones on, and I just don't tolerate that. My mother was a domestic worker and educated five of us, and we all got post-graduate degrees. Just didn't put up with that type of nonsense. People in my neighborhood didn't put up with that nonsense. Schoolteachers didn't put up with that nonsense. But now you can't even say anything to a kid or you're - I'm talking about the teachers and the instructors. We need to turn it around. We're in control, and they need to comply with the laws and the rules and the regulations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington about some choice words that he had for defendants in his courtroom one day recently that got some attention. Judge, stop for a minute and tell me a little bit about yourself. Why did you want to become a lawyer?

Judge ARRINGTON: When I was a young man, you know, the only lawyer I knew was Calhoun, on "Amos 'n' Andy," you know? And then I got a chance to participate in the civil rights movement with some great leaders and friends. Lonnie King, whom people have forgotten about, Julian Bond, Danny Mitchell, Carolyn Long Banks, and so many people. When we got up and put our lives on the line, you know, and demonstration, traveling to Mississippi, and there were no lawyers to defend us.

And there was one great lawyer that I subsequently came to practice law with, by the name of Donald Lee Holwell(ph). A distinguished lawyer who passed here. He was Vernon Jones'(ph) mentee, my mentee, Howard More Jr.(ph) mentee, and there was a need for Afro-American lawyers in that particular time. Howard University, in 1965, opened the doors and admitted 150 Afro-American male and females and others to come to Howard Law School to train us. And so, I went off to law school to be trained so I could return to the south and I could be that voice. I could be an advocate. And so that's why I wanted to do it and I loved the law. I thought that I could do some good. I could make a difference, and I think I have made a difference.

MARTIN: Why did you want to become a judge? I mean, you were named one of Atlanta's top 25 lawyers, which is no easy thing to do, ever. Black Enterprise named your law firm one of the country's top black law firms. You've been in politics and so forth. Why did you want to become a judge? Some people think you could be playing some golf?

Judge ARRINGTON: No, I don't want to play no golf. You know I played golf and...

MARTIN: OK, tennis?

Judge ARRINGTON: Well, I quit playing tennis in 1958 when Arthur Ashe beat me six-love, six-love, at North Carolina College on the first courts, so I decided to give up tennis. But you'll find out, in three or four years, when your husband come in and say to you, I'm exhausted, I'm tired, and I had done it for 28 years, educated two children - my grandma would say chillens, you know, and they had gotten out, passed the bar exam, went to some top schools, and I was just through. I just wanted to have some time with my grandchildren. Three of them, you know, age seven, four and a half, two and a half. And I look forward to, on Sundays, to go out and just be with them and enjoy my life.

MARTIN: Do you think though, getting back to your chat with the young men in the courtroom, do you think that a lot of, particularly African-American judges, feel the way you do? That you're sitting there, day after day, and seeing all this human wreckage in front of you and you just want to do something?

Judge ARRINGTON: I am telling you the emails that we have received from state court judges, U.S. district court judges, which have been mind boggling, and say, keep on keeping on. And more, and I'm not going to give his name, but he is a district court judge, said, don't let the bastards stop you. You did the right thing. And so, I'm encouraged. And you know, you know, if it doesn't work out for me, I'm 67, I just go and pack my 401K and move on about my business.

MARTIN: All right. Fulton County Supreme Court Judge Marvin Arrington. He joined us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Judge Arrington, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Judge ARRINGTON: All the best.

MARTIN: Remember, at Tell Me More the conversation continues. We want to know what you think of Judge Arrington's decision to ask to speak only to the black defendants in his courtroom. Did he cross a line by asking all the white people in his courtroom to step outside? Did he open the door to frank talk or just make a mess? To tell us what you think, visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore, or you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522.

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