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The continuing struggle for justice and civil rights in Louisville lost two giants this week. And I lost two wonderful friends. Judge Benjamin Shobe, 95, died on Friday, and Senator Georgia Davis Powers, 92, passed away on Saturday.
In the following days, I expect there will be a great number of laudatory encomia about these two civil rights pioneers in the press and on social media. Everyone whose life was touched by Ben and Georgia will have something praiseworthy to say about them, and will doubtless recall many fond anecdotes. I will leave it to others to catalog their many honors and accomplishments.
What I want to share with readers is the fact that these two heroes of my youth were, in fact warm and friendly people. They were not larger than life, and would be the first to admit that they were not perfect. If one requires all of one’s heroes to be saints, one will worship at an empty pantheon.
If I could single out a characteristic that both of these honorable individuals shared, it would be that they had class. When you talked with them, they looked you square in the eye, and told you exactly what was on their mind, without guile or artifice. Neither would ever be sarcastic or condescending, and they both exuded a humble dignity that was, quite frankly, unusual among civil rights leaders.
I worked closely with Sen. Powers in several Democratic political campaigns, and helped her organize the March 7, 1964, March On Frankfort, in support of a Kentucky Civil Rights law. One of the great thrills of my life was when she introduced me to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During those heady days in the middle of the 1960s, friends close to Georgia knew of her passionate love for Dr. King; and most of us knew of their intimate affair. But none spoke publically of such things back then. Later, after Dr. King’s death, Georgia published her autobiography, I Shared The Dream, in which she described her relationship to the Nobel laurate in great detail. Some may have been shocked at this admission, but most who knew them both, understood and forgave.
Ben Shobe was the first judge I ever appeared before, and, many times, took me and other green lawyers under his avuncular wing and saved us from appearing too foolish in the courtroom. His office door was always open to lawyers seeking advice and counsel, and his kindness and generosity were the things of legend.
Judge Shobe once stopped me in the hallway of the Hall of Justice, and asked me for a favor. An armed robber was going to be tried in his court, and the defendant refused to be represented by a Public Defender. Would I, as a favor to the court, represent this villain in a jury trial the following week?
Of course I would. I had only been practicing law for about five years at that time, and I looked upon his request as a great honor.
The trial was a nightmare. My client, every bit of six-foot-six and 280 pounds, threw a fit in the courtroom, and had to be restrained. Despite my best efforts, and following a string of quite convincing and inculpatory forensic and eye-witness evidence, the jury found him guilty of robbery. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecution revealed the defendant’s seemingly endless record of crimes and misdemeanors.
Judge Shobe sentenced the defendant to serve 202 years in prison, as a Persistent Felony Offender. He would be eligible, under Kentucky law, for parole after serving 20 years, but the judge wanted to send the parole board a message that this guy was sorely in need of “rehabilitation.”
As happened many times over the years, my client shook Judge Shobe’s hand, and actually thanked him for sending him to the penitentiary. This was a common occurrence in Ben’s court. Even the folks he sent away in chains, liked and respected him.
My late father was still alive at that time, and he called me on the telephone the day the story of my trial appeared on the front page of The Courier-Journal. My name was mentioned three times in the article, and readers were made aware of the fact that a new sentencing record was set for Kentucky criminal convictions. Two Hundred and Two Years. No mention of the fact that I was drafted by Ben Shobe for a suicide mission.
“Saw your name in the paper, son,” said my dad. “You might want to go out to the University of Louisville and see if you can get your money back.” No good deed goes unpunished.
As I say, Georgia and Ben were not only my friends, but were important role models in the development of my character. I can only make a meager attempt to aspire to the level of decency and compassion demonstrated by these two leaders from The Greatest Generation. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Georgia had a great sense of humor. Ben was the best poker player who ever picked my pocket. Were they perfect people? Hardly. But they were my heroes, and I am going to miss them.
The photograph at the top of this article, featuring the author pretending to plead a case before the Hon. Benjamin Shobe, appeared on the Fall, 1991, cover of Briefly Speaking, the newsletter of the Louisville Legal Aid Society.