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Standing on ‘the shoulders of Bob Ming’

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

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.

He married in 1941, taught law at Howard University and rose fast through the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among Mr. Ming's manuscripts archived at the school are notes he scrawled as a young lawyer, after learning of the firebombing of the home of a black family on Harvard Street in Northwest in April 1940.

A member of the NAACP's national legal committee, Mr. Ming urged the Justice Department to investigate. For decades, he kept a note that had been sent to the home saying: "Negroes shall not live among us white people and destroy the value of our property. Better move quick. Not safe to wait for a second warning. Remember you are a negro. Keep your place. Just a hint."

Mr. Ming's notes give no clue as to how the investigation ended, or if it ever began.

In 1943, after Mr. Ming entered the military during World War II, he was granted a furlough to argue an election-law case before the Supreme Court. At the time, he was an Army private.

"Unrecognized, he caused something of a stir as he strode through the marble halls of the building and, with briefcase in hand, was ushered into the inner sanctums of the highest court in the land," reported the Chicago Defender. "Startled onlookers were told he was Robert (Bob) Ming."

After leaving the military as a captain, Mr. Ming went home to Chicago, became the first black law professor at the University of Chicago and partnered in a private law firm. According to the NAACP, which still honors lawyers with an award in Mr. Ming's name, he also worked closely with Mr. Marshall and others as one of the main architects in the Brown v. Board of Education litigation.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling declared segregation in the nation's schools "inherently unequal." A few years later, Mr. Ming got a call saying he was needed in Alabama.

Unanimous decision

Despite Mr. Ming's decades of work as a civil rights lawyer, ultimately two routine tax cases would come to shape his career. The first bolstered his reputation as one of the top legal minds in the country, and the second threatened to destroy it.

In February 1960, King was indicted on perjury charges related to tax evasion in Montgomery, Ala., the first such charge in state history, according to a 2003 account of the trial by King researcher Edgar Dyer in the Journal of African American History.

After leading the Montgomery bus boycotts years earlier, King was charged with listing his income as $9,150 instead of what the state alleged, $16,162, according to newspaper reports. But Mr. Ming argued that the state used "fraudulent techniques" to arrive at the figure. However, he and the rest of the legal team didn't focus on King's race during the trial, according to Mr. Dyer.

"If you men in the jury go home and add up your bank deposits and want the state to consider that your total income, which is taxable, then you will convict the defendant," Mr. Ming was quoted as telling jurors before deliberations.

After deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes, the all-white jury issued its verdict on May 28, 1960: not guilty. King, perhaps stunned, was reportedly emotionless, while his wife, Coretta, and another lawyer, Hubert T. Delaney, cried.

Years later, King recalled the verdict as a "turning point" in his life, according to a forward he wrote in the book "Deep In My Heart" by the now-deceased activist lawyer William M. Kunstler.

"Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication," he wrote, citing the names of Mr. Ming and Mr. Delaney.

Unlike his famous client, Mr. Ming wouldn't avoid prison 13 years later.

Unpaid taxes

By 1970, Mr. Ming, still active in the NAACP, was busy in the so-called "Contract Buyers League" cases in Chicago, representing black homeowners who couldn't get banks to give them mortgage financing.

Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois during the mid-1970s and now a partner at Jenner & Block LLP, worked closely with Mr. Ming.

"As a result of that, we became very close friends and spent a lot of time together," he said. "Bob was a great raconteur. And he was a wonderful writer."

But Mr. Ming had his faults, too, friends say. For one thing, he paid little attention to his taxes and personal finances in later years, even after his accountant died.

"Bob had a high regard for himself ... and that was one of his downfalls," Mr. Leighton said.

By the late 1960s, following the death of his accountant, Mr. Ming learned the IRS was investigating him. From 1963 to 1966, he'd failed to file his tax returns. Investigators had evidence of missed filings in previous years, too. Mr. Ming filed the returns and paid his taxes by the time authorities began a criminal investigation, according to filings by his defense lawyers.

Mr. Ming drew U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who had a tough and sometimes abrasive reputation on the bench, particularly when he presided over the famous "Chicago Seven" trial of protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"He was the worst possible judge for any defendant," Mr. Sullivan said.

Judge Hoffman sentenced Mr. Ming to four months in federal prison for each of his four tax counts. He also stacked them to be served consecutively, giving Mr. Ming 16 months in prison.

In January 1973, after filing a petition for clemency to President Nixon, Mr. Ming reported to federal prison in Sandstone, Minn. Always a lawyer, he kept pens and legal pads and jotted short observations about his new life as a federal prisoner.

"Allergic to B.S.," he wrote. "Inmate boasting - cars, women, money ideas." Another note reads, "Sorry story of 21-year-old in jail since he was 10!"

Mr. Ming and his wife, Irvena, an attendance officer for the Chicago school system, wrote each other. She mostly told him about the little things he was missing: the weather, the peeling paint on the bathroom door, the couple's cats and whether their Thunderbird might fetch $500.

Mrs. Ming also fretted about her husband, especially his recent complaints of pain in his hands and arms. And she wondered when he would be coming home.

"I am trying very hard to keep my feet on the ground and not get too optimistic, but it is hard not to," she wrote. "I know how you must feel. Anyway, we will keep praying."

Mr. Sullivan drove to Minnesota and visited his friend in prison.

"I went to visit him and he complained about dizziness, and I wrote a letter to the man who headed the prison warning him about this," Mr. Sullivan said, noting that soon thereafter Mr. Ming fell and hit his head in a prison shower. After his fall, Mr. Ming was sent to a veteran's hospital in Chicago, where he rallied briefly, just long enough to be able to watch the Watergate hearings on television.

By late April, his prognosis was grim.

"Doctors Give Up, Atty. Bob Ming clinging to life!" the headline in the Chicago Defender read. Mr. Ming's death on June 30, 1973, prompted an outpouring of praise from civil rights leaders, but questions about his fate, too.

Chicago lawyer Robert L. Tucker, a colleague, eulogized Mr. Ming, saying his "finer and most productive years were spent in the trenches and upon the blood-stained battlefields" of the civil rights movement. And Chicago Defender columnist Louis Martin called for more people like Mr. Ming as the Watergate scandal embroiled Washington.

Now, Mr. Ming's legal files sit in the archives in the basement of a library at Howard University. The boxes include a file called "drawings," with pictures Mr. Sullivan's young children drew for Mr. Ming, who never had children of his own. And along with the senior King's plea to the U.S. Parole Board is another note from Mr. Sullivan to the Parole Board, which eventually let Mr. Ming out of prison as his health worsened.

"My admiration for his humanity and legal ability is so great that it is difficult to put in words," Mr. Sullivan wrote.

Thirty-five years later, from his Chicago law office, the words are still hard to come by.