The Crusader Newspaper Group


By Dr. Conrad Worrill, Chicago Crusader

The recently released book, Full Circle: Race, Law and Justice, on the legendary legal career of Attorney James D. Montgomery, Sr., is a must read. Particularly for those who want to examine the life of one of the great African American lawyers in this country. Attorney Montgomery wrote this book with the assistance of co-authors Walter M. Perkins and Michelle Thompson. It was published by the renowned Third World Press Foundation.

The book traces Attorney Montgomery’s life from birth on February 17, 1932 in Louise, Mississippi. Like millions of African American families, Montgomery’s father fled Louise, Mississippi due to the racism and white supremacy system of justice when he was falsely accused by the delivery man he worked for of stealing his money. So in the late 1930s, Montgomery’s father was encouraged to flee Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois. James’ mother, Mildred, joined her husband in 1939 when his father found work and a place for his family to live. This is a familiar story in the annals of African Americans migrating to the North fleeing the deep oppression of the Jim Crow South.

James Montgomery attended Oakland Elementary School and graduated from Fuller Elementary School. At the age of fourteen and participating in the youth activities of the Abraham Lincoln Center (now the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies of Northeastern Illinois University). Montgomery was described as “a smart, well-rounded young man. Friends recall him as an athlete, saxophone player, and having a good sense of humor. What they all most remember, however, was his intense drive to become a lawyer.”

James in his own words explains that “By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I wanted to become a trial lawyer. In fact, my 1949 Wendell Phillips School Yearbook lists my choice to become a lawyer, right under my picture.” In 1949, Montgomery enrolled in the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in Chicago. After transferring to the main campus in Urbana-Champaign he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, with a minor in Economics.

Surviving the racism and white supremacy of the University of Illinois Law School, Montgomery was able to graduate in 1956. In November of 1956, after preparing for the state bar exam, he passed on the first try. After passing the state bar James began his law career working for Rogers, Strayhorn and Harth. As revealed in Full Circle, “It was a great landing for a young attorney eager to learn. Earl Strayhorn was a criminal attorney, who later became a judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Jack Rogers, a real estate specialist, also capped his career as a Cook County Circuit Court judge. Raymond Harth focused on divorce law.” These were key foundational legal relationships in the development of Attorney Montgomery’s becoming one of America’s great trial lawyers.

As I was quoted in Full Circle, “I was familiar with the work of Atty. Montgomery from 1961, when he filed the desegregation suit against the Chicago Board of Education. Around 1964 or 1965, I began to hear his name again because he was involved in the burgeoning Chicago Freedom Movement, which pre-dated King coming to Chicago.” Further, I was quoted as saying, “I believe that he represented about 1,000 protesters who had marched on City Hall and were arrested for civil disobedience.”

Attorney Montgomery’s brief entrance into the political arena occurred when he ran for Alderman of the 21st Ward around 1966. I was an enthusiastic supporter as a young man. Even though he lost the race for Alderman by the late 1960s and early 1970s, Atty. Montgomery had established himself as a go-to lawyer. He was viewed as someone unafraid of both legal and political establishments.

As I said in Full Circle, “Over the years, everybody would say ‘call Jim’ because he did a lot of pro bono cases. His name came up in the Black Movement in Chicago if we didn’t have any money and we needed him. He would always give his advice or he would find someone to help us.”

Attorney Montgomery was the first African American Corporation Counsel in the Harold Washington Administration in which he served superbly. Along with Leo Holt, Judge Eugene Pincham, and influenced by the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall, after reading Full Circle it becomes clear that Attorney James D. Montgomery used his considerable skills to serve his people well.

Full Circle is a must read.



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