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Standing on ‘the shoulders of Bob Ming’
Nearly five years to the day after his son was fatally shot, Martin Luther King Sr. sent a letter to the U.S. Parole Board in hopes of freeing a friend from prison.
“In the days when my son Martin Luther King Jr. lived and was struggling in what proved to be his destined way to bring full freedom to black citizens in their own country, Bob Ming came to the legal assistance of Martin, Ralph D. Abernathy and others who worked with them,” he wrote in the March 23, 1973, letter, now archived at Howard University.
“And but for the legal brilliance, fearlessness and dedication of Bob Ming, the struggle may well have died aborning.”
Thirty-five years after the death of William Robert Ming Jr., history has largely forgotten the Chicago civil rights lawyer who kept Martin Luther King out of prison, worked on the country’s biggest civil rights cases, and yet spent his own last few months locked up in a federal prison.
Still, friends and colleagues say they are thinking of him as the nation prepares to swear in its first black president, Barack Obama, whose Chicago home is two blocks from the East 49th Street address where Mr. Ming lived and held great sway in the civil rights movement a generation earlier.
“Bob Ming was a civil rights pioneer,” said George Leighton, his former law partner and a retired federal judge. “The NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall, didn’t do anything without consulting Bob Ming.”
Among other landmark civil rights cases, Mr. Ming worked with Supreme Court Justice-to-be Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education and Sweatt v. Painter, which both broke down racial barriers in education.
He represented a black man in Texas named William Ward whose murder conviction the Supreme Court reversed in 1942, amid evidence he was arrested without a warrant, driven for three days from county to county and beaten, whipped and burned before confessing.
And in front of an all-white Alabama jury and judge in a segregated courtroom in 1960, he helped keep King out of prison over perjury charges.
“Negro or not, he is a master of the law,” one newspaper account quoted a “reluctantly admiring” Alabama lawyer as saying.
The body of Mr. Ming’s work added significantly to the successes of the civil rights movement. For many who took part in that movement and who knew Mr. Ming, the work is culminating in what Mr. Leighton calls the greatest political moment in his 96-year life: the move of another black lawyer, Mr. Obama, from the same Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood where Mr. Ming lived into the White House.
“When I was at the Democratic National Convention in Denver after Barack spoke, I thought about Bob Ming,” said Abner Mikva, a former Chicago congressman, federal judge and Obama friend who was a student of Mr. Ming’s at the University of Chicago Law School. “It’s remarkable that Barack Obama would stand on the shoulders of a Bob Ming.”
None of those possibilities could have been on Mr. Ming’s mind in the early 1970s. With the reputations of colleagues like Mr. Leighton and Justice Marshall on the rise, Mr. Ming’s own legal career, and his life and freedom with it, were slipping away.
A fast rise
The son of Annie and William Ming Sr., a South Side Chicago municipal employee, Mr. Ming was born in 1911, later worked as a grocery clerk and found jobs on wrecking crews while putting himself through the University of Chicago. He was the first black to be elected to the school’s law review.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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