Today is Martin Luther King Day. To celebrate, I’d like to share the story of one of my personal heroes, Judge Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston. In 1968, Alexander became the first African-American judge elected in North Carolina and only the second African-American woman to be elected as a judge in the United States.
Judge Alexander was born in 1919, in Smithfield, North Carolina. When asked how she felt about her childhood in the Jim Crow/segregationist south, she stated, “[I]resented it, not because I wanted to integrate with them. I’ve always felt they were kind of looney, anybody that felt there was something better about you because of your color and your sex, I thought there was something wrong with your mind.” 1
In 1937, at the age of eighteen, Alexander graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College in Greensboro. Not long after she married Girardeau “Tony” Alexander II, a New Yorker with family in the area. She was 19 years old. 2
The marriage was not strong. Along with infidelity, there were allegations of physical and verbal abuse. Unhappy in her marriage, Judge Alexander made the decision to go to law school. Her husband agreed on the condition that she attend a law school in New York City, so that she could stay with his family.
Judge Alexander applied–and was accepted–to the Columbia University School of Law. She did not, however, attend Columbia because of its stellar academic reputation; rather,
“[M]y marriage was on the rocks . . . I sat up in the [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College] and went through all the catalogs, all the schools in New York. And the most expensive one was Columbia. So I wanted to punish [Dr. Alexander] a little bit. And that’s how I wrote Columbia and they got interested.” 3
In the fall of 1943, she became the first African-American woman to enter Columbia Law School. The dean of the law school reportedly greeted her by saying, “We welcome you, Mrs. Alexander. You know, you’re the first woman of your race we’ve ever accepted in this school. We’ve had women here since 1927.” 4 Although race had always played a part in her life, this was the first time she felt singled out. “They put the weight of a whole race of people on me.” 5
Judge Alexander proved herself and in 1945 she became the first African-American woman to graduate from Columbia with her Bachelor of Laws, or LL.B., considered the primary law degree at the time. Despite her education, however, Judge Alexander was not allowed to sit for the North Carolina bar. “The only way to become eligible to take the North Carolina bar was to prove yourself as “exceptional and meritorious, or practice law in another state for five years.”6
It took nearly two years for the state of North Carolina to allow her to sit for the bar. In 1946, when she asked for an application to take the bar, the secretary told her “them damn Yankees got too upset about you. We’re damn sick about them damn Yankees trying to run our business down here.”7 Finally, in 1947, the state allowed her to sit for the bar. Judge Alexander was the second black woman to pass the bar in North Carolina, and the first to actually practice law.
After passing the bar, Judge Alexander opened a law practice in Greensboro. In the 1950s many of the courtrooms where Alexander tried her cases were segregated. “On the days when she appeared in a segregated courtroom, Alexander stated she would “wear a mink coat into the courtroom and instead of sitting with whites, I would sit behind the bar next to the dirtiest, blackest, Negro working man…it would upset the court.” 8 She was never held in contempt of court, but she was told several times by the judges to sit inside the bar with the other attorneys. Alexander responded, “If my people have to sit on one side, I want to be with my people.””9
For her own clients, Judge Alexander would “personally haul three or four loads of clients to court, just so they could ride in the Cadillac or Lincoln”, thus allowing them to avoid having to ride in the back of the bus. 10 ““[T]o be able to ride in a car, to have something of material value that they could be associated with,” undoubtedly made Alexander’s clients feel good before they stepped in the courtroom, as well as ensured her black clients arrived in nicer transportation than the whites in court.”11
Her former law partner, Donald Speckhard, explained that “she frequently used her legal talents to take on pro bono cases for those with few means. She very rarely turned anybody down. She didn’t get paid a lot of times…she sort of was a crusader. That is to say, from the standpoint that the millionaire and pauper should have the same type of representation and she provided that.” 12 Notably, Judge Alexander even represented members of the Ku Klux Klan and credited herself with many of them “drifting away from the fold.” 13
As Judge Alexander’s esteem grew, her marriage continued to sour. Her husband’s continuing dependence on alcohol made her fear for her–and her son’s–well-being. In a letter addressed to her husband, she stated, “I didn’t leave you for three reasons – Pride in my family – Pride in my race – and hating the social repercussions – and fear to bodily harm and death from you.”14
To cope with the stress of her marriage and the continual daily humiliation of segregation, Judge Alexander wrote poetry, and even published a book, When is a Man Free?: 15
“You say we are lazy, ill – mannered, half – crazy:Ungrateful, immoral, unprepared;Yet we have climbed your ladders round by round,In spite of your attempts to push us down.”–When is a Man Free
Judge Alexander’s decision to run for district court judge in 1968 was based on her experiences as a defense attorney. She said, “This is the kind of justice we’ve had in North Carolina…this is the most repressive state in the Union, because inside the court system, except for my getting in there, it has been very repressive,” 16 later adding, “It was just in certain types of cases or when certain persons were on the bench some people were presumed guilty instead of innocent…I told myself that one of these days I’d have a chance to do something about it.”17
Judge Alexander came in third in a field of twelve candidates, garnering 33,968 and winning one of the six judgeship vacancies. Her victory was nothing short of impressive, considering at the time only 1.3 percent of the nation’s attorneys were black, and only 314 out of an estimated 16,700 full-time judges nationwide were black.
Judge’s Alexander’s victory was also notable because of her gender. Women were still severely underrepresented, both in the practice of law and in the judiciary itself. In 1970, out of 16,700 judges in state courts, only 183 were women. 18
There was some talk about then-President Nixon nominating her to a lifetime appointment as a judge to the Middle District of North Carolina; however, the Chairwoman of the Sixth District of the North Carolina Republican Party stated, “I think Mrs. Alexander is a very capable person and highly qualified for the job, but she is a relative newcomer to the party.”19 There were also questions about how appointing an African-American judge might impact Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” where Nixon courted white votes by deliberately provoking fears of racial equality.20
In 1974, Judge Alexander ran to be the Republican candidate for the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Despite her reputation and experience, she eventually lost to a white man who had no legal education, no court experience, and was a fire extinguisher salesman whose platform was essentially “God told me to run.”21 At the time, the only judicial requirements in North Carolina were that the candidate had to be twenty-one years of age and a qualified, registered voter.
The fire extinguisher’s Democratic opponent that year was Justice Susie Sharp. Had Judge Alexander won the primary, the race for North Carolina’s Chief Justice would have been historic. As it was, Justice Sharp concluded that the fire-extinguisher salesman was
only running because he was “a religious fanatic and…his purpose in filing was to prevent a woman from becoming chief justice.”22
Judge Alexander’s loss to an unqualified fire extinguisher salesman was a shock to many. U.S. Representative Richardson Preyer, Democrat from Greensboro, wrote: “I was appalled at the outcome in your race. This is the worst result in an election that I have ever heard of.” A.W. Houtz, aluminum manufacturer who conducted business with the fire extinguisher salesman in Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina wrote, “In my fifteen years of active service to the Republican Party of North Carolina (most of them as County Chairman) I have seldom been ashamed of my party affiliation. The results of your failure to become our candidate in last week’s primary was one of them.” E.S. Schlosser, Jr., an attorney in Greensboro wrote, “I am sorry, truly sorry. I don’t understand, but I am afraid I do understand. I am sorry.”23
In response to her loss, Judge Alexander only said, “If a person is clearly not qualified, if a person clearly cannot fill the job and if the party position is that they can’t take sides, then I don’t know what to say.” 24
After Chief Justice Sharp’s victory, she sent a telegram saying, “Congratulations to you and the voters of our state for their good judgment. Best Wishes, Elreta Melton Alexander.”25
To learn more about Judge Alexander, I recommend the excellent dissertation Gender, Justice, and Jim Crow: North Carolina Judge Elreta Alexander and the Long Civil Rights Era, by Virginia Lyndsay Summey.
Most of the quotes in this post are from Summey’s dissertation. She, in turn, cites them as quotations from Judge Alexander’s papers, found in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Elreta Alexander Papers, MSS 233.
I prefer Summey’s dissertation rather than the published version available on JSTOR.
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson has also written a superlative article on Judge Alexander’s life and times. Personally, I like Summey’s for the background, and Justice Timmons-Goodson’s for her familiarity with Judge Alexander. It makes a difference when you know your subject personally.
Finally, I have endnotes for further review. Forgive the format; I was too lazy to look up APA, Chicago Style, or Bluebook format because this is a blog post and endnote formatting make me crazy.