James Parsons, an influential Judge


James Parsons
Date: 
Sun, 1911-08-13

*James Parsons was born on this date in 1911. He was an African American lawyer and judge.

From Kansas City, MO, James Benton Parsons was the son of James B. (a minister) and Maggie Parsons. The Parsons family moved to Decatur, Illinois, when he was still very young. As a child and young adult, music--not law--captured his attention and imagination. He attended James Milliken University and Conservatory where he received his B. A. in music in 1934. He studied political science at the University of Washington graduating in 1940. He served in the Navy from 1942-1945 and married Amy Margaret Maxwell. Parsons went on to the University of Chicago for his M. A. in political science in 1946 and LL.D. in 1949.

Parsons taught music and political science at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO, 1934-1938; acting head of music department at Lincoln University, 1938-1940; supervisor of instrumental music, Public Schools of Greensboro, NC, 1940-1942; volunteered U. S. Navy, 1942-1945; law firm of Gassaway, Crosson, Turner & Parsons, 1949-1951; taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School, Chicago, IL, 1940-1951; assistant corporation counsel for City of Chicago, 1949-1951; assistant U. S. district attorney, 1951-1960; Cook County Superior Court, judge, 1960-1961; U. S. District Court Judge, Chief of Court, Chief Judge Emeritus, Senior Judge, 1961-1992; and initiated the James B. Parsons scholarship fund, 1992.

He was the first African American named to the U. S. District Court with life tenure. An outspoken jurist, Parsons was appointed by President Kennedy in 1961 and presided for more than 30 years before his retirement in 1992. Parsons made news in 1969 when he condemned Blacks for getting caught up in slick "white man's crimes." In an interview with The New York Times, Parsons claimed that Blacks had neither the education nor the background to commit such crimes as counterfeiting, mail fraud, embezzling, safe cracking, and jewel theft with any degree of skill, "Because the society has prevented [them] from getting into that world."

Opportunities to work as engravers, a good start for counterfeiters or watchmakers and helpful if you want to crack safes, were denied to African Americans institutionally. "I am not saying to my people that they ought to get into crafts and skills and big business to steal, or to learn to steal cleverly;" he simply felt it was "especially stupid" for Blacks to get involved with those types of crimes because they risked a greater chance of getting caught.

He received many awards: Honorary degrees from Lincoln University, James Milliken University, and DePaul University Law School; Parsons Elementary School was dedicated in his name, 1967, Decatur, IL; Citation of Recognition for Outstanding Service as Chief Judge of the District Court, Chicago Bar Association, 1981; Outstanding Service Award, Chicago State University, 1984. Parsons's tenure on the bench was not without notable legal incidents. The New York Times's obituary cited a federal case in which he sentenced 47 men to jail for price fixing. Parsons also played a crucial role in the air traffic controllers' dispute in their 1970 strike.

In 1987 Parsons had to uphold the Tenant's Bill of Rights in Chicago. Not afraid of ruffling some feathers, he ruled the following year that the Daley Center in Chicago could display nativity scenes publicly. Parsons retired from the bench in 1992, although for a few months following his official retirement he continued to perform some functions, including swearing in new citizens, Parsons passed away on June 19, 1993, at the age of 81.

Reference:
United States District Court for the
Northern District of Illinois
Chicago, Illinois

To become a Judge

Person / name: 

Parsons, James