Faculty spotlight

“No Equal Justice”

A new book from Wayne Law professors explores the life and legacy of George W. Crockett Jr.
By Biba Adams
"No Equal Justice" The Legacy of Civil Rights Icon George W. Crockett Jr. book cover
In a triumphant legacy of attorney, civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman George W. Crockett Jr., Professor Peter J. Hammer and Professor Emeritus Edward Littlejohn explore Detroit’s outsized role in the history of civil rights in the United States. “No Equal Justice”: The Legacy of Civil Rights Icon George W. Crockett Jr. details Crockett’s career fighting racism and defending the constitutional rights of the oppressed, breaking the silence of stories of Black lawyers and judges that are rarely told.

The book — which has already garnered a number of awards — begins by tracing the Crockett family history from slavery to Crockett’s admission into the University of Michigan Law School. He became one of the most senior Black lawyers in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration and later played a central role fighting discrimination in the United Auto Workers union. In 1948, in a team of five attorneys, he was the only Black lawyer defending the constitutional rights of the leaders of the U.S. Communist Party in Dennis v. United States, the longest and most dramatic political trial in American history. At the close of the case, Crockett and his defense colleagues were summarily sentenced to prison for zealously representing their clients. He headed the National Lawyers Guild office in Jackson, Mississippi, during 1964’s Freedom Summer.

In 1966, Crockett was elected to Detroit’s Recorder’s Court, the court hearing all criminal cases in the city. For the first time, Detroit had a courtroom where Black litigants knew they would be treated fairly. In 1969, the New Bethel Church Incident became Crockett’s most famous case. He held court proceedings in the police station itself, freeing members of a Black nationalist group who had been illegally arrested. In 1980, he was elected to the United States Congress, where he spent a decade fighting President Ronald Reagan’s agenda, as well as working to end apartheid in South Africa and championing the cause to free Nelson Mandela.

"No Equal Justice" The Legacy of Civil Rights Icon George W. Crockett Jr. book cover

4 questions with non-J.D. program students

"4 Questions with Professor Peter J. Hammer"
Wayne Lawyer sat down with Hammer to learn how “No Equal Justice” is introducing Crockett to a new generation of readers, historians and social justice activists.
The book highlights Crockett’s legacy as an inspiration to freedom fighters. Can you speak to that?
One thing we consciously did is use long quotes from Crockett so the reader could get a sense of his voice and his personality — and I think the reader gets that. Crockett had an ability to speak across time, so while he’s speaking often to issues in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, it feels like he’s speaking to our time. I think it’s important that folks today have a chance to get to know and learn from Crockett because there’s been a narrowing of views in the general community and in the Black community in the last four decades where you don’t have a broad range of opinions. Now, we have such a shallow sense of what our economic and political options are. Crockett is from a very different tradition at a different time, so he’s speaking in a voice that we don’t hear elsewhere today. I think that’s an important voice to get out and let people learn from.
When I reflect on the Crockett name, I think of the many educational facilities and other things that have been named in his honor. What about you?
We have to remember that his wife, Dr. Ethelene Crockett, was also amazing. Some things around town are named for her; they were both pioneers in their fields. But, as for George Crockett, it speaks to the fact that he lived a life of principle and courage. He knew what was right, and he did what was right, regardless of the consequences. If you’re familiar with Dennis v. United States, in the hysteria of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the United States government arrested and criminally charged the top leadership of the U.S. Communist Party — not for what they did, but for what they thought. This was an incredible violation of the First Amendment. Crockett was on their defense team, and that was professional suicide: the backlash that was not just happening to him but also happened to his wife, who was trying to build a practice here in Detroit. At the end of that trial, the judge sentenced him to criminal contempt for zealously advocating for his clients.

He spent four months in jail for doing his job as a lawyer and faced disbarment when he got back for now being a felon. He took chances and suffered consequences for his beliefs. He was willing to take the consequences of taking grave action.

What are some comparisons that you would draw between Judge Crockett and Judge Keith?
Judge Crockett ran for his position as Recorder’s Court judge in 1966 and assumed the bench in 1967, six months before the rebellion. He played a critical role in protecting individual rights during the rebellion, when everybody else was engaging in practices of collective blame and collective guilt. Judge Keith was appointed to his position on the federal district court right after the rebellion, so they both started on the bench at about the same time. Judge Keith co-chaired Crockett’s reelection committee in 1972, so there was a fair amount of interaction and common beliefs. Judge Keith gave remarks at Crockett’s funeral, so from start to finish, there was a lot of commonality.

But there are also differences. If you would ask Judge Keith what his most important professional affiliation was, it would be the NAACP. If you asked Judge Crockett what it would be, he would say the National Lawyers Guild. Historically, there were often tensions in the approaches and strategies between the NAACP and the National Lawyers Guild; you can see some of these tensions in the temperaments and approaches of Judge Keith and Judge Crockett. They were two very different personalities, but also two incredible champions for justice.

Why is it important to share this story?
At the Keith Center, we’ve always viewed education as a civil right focusing on what opportunities people have to have a good education and good futures. If we’re not investing in children, then we know what the future is going to look like. But the youth also give me hope. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement led by youth. I think out of necessity, we are seeing younger generations of leaders. In all the youth work we do, you always leave hopeful because there are such talented, committed young folks that really want to make a better life for themselves and others. But the youth also need mentors and heroes. Crockett can speak to them in a meaningful way.