"Now let me ask you this . . ."
Dennis Roberts

In 2002 the new federal courthouse in Albany, GA, bearing C.B. King's name, was to be dedicated, and many of us who had worked with C.B. and loved him most (law clerks, SNCC workers, and local folks who had moved away) gathered once again in "All-benny," as it is pronoucned. But ever since the announcement of the dedication of the new C.B. King federal courthouse and the attendant celebrations, a question had been troubling me: If C.B. were alive would he attend? Or would he tell these crackers that had paid him only the most grudging respect in his lifetime that they ought to go on and name it the BUBBA COURTHOUSE, carved up there in stone, which would at least more accurately reflect the racist justice still taking place inside. Everyone was enormously proud, including me, but I couldn't help thinking if C.B. were alive, would he have brought a law suit to stop them? He hated all those courthouses. "Edifices to Injustice" he called them.

To me, it was most incredible that my friend and mentor, Atty. C.B. King, who had been brutalized by the local sheriff, taunted by cops, and scorned by local (read: white) lawyers, now had a new federal courthouse named after him in his hometown, whose white citizens so recently would have liked to kill him. The authorities made it a nightmare for him even to use the federal law library when I worked with him in the 60s.

I wondered if he'd be saying, even with its being dedicated in his name, "I won't lend my name to a building where the same racist injustice will be going on in its courtrooms like it has always gone on before" — or his shorthand version of the same sentiment, which was a reality-check kind of comment he made at crucial moments — "Rob, white folks still ahead."

Ultimately the federal government proved him right once again. The "official" government photograph of the building was taken at such an angle that his name on it was completely obscured!

But I decided he probably wouldn't boycott the ceremonies as he was too much of a gentleman and with too much decency to embarrass these fools. And he might sigh and think wistfully of the slow wheels of justice as they ground oh so fine, spitting out the dust of Black defendants, with which we were all too familiar. And of course there were so many who had worked so hard that these events should unfold. Then I remembered C.B.'s triumphs and the times he had bested the intolerant folk who not only opposed him in the courtroom but did their level best to prevent him ever entering the courtroom in the first place, as an attorney, that is, the first Black lawyer in south Georgia history — and I decided to attend.

When C.B. attended law school it was at Case Western reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, as no Black could be admitted to any state or private law school in the South. Also, Blacks could not attend the bar review course which was almost mandatory for anyone who hoped to pass the bar. He studied on his own and in Don Hollowell's office in Atlanta — Black lawyers generally had libraries far more extensive than the county bar association law libraries to which Blacks were not admitted. C.B. told me that many years after passing the Georgia bar on his first attempt, he was told by a bar examiner that he had scored higher than anyone else in Georgia legal history. Of course, your papers were graded anonymously or he would not have passed all.

I remember C.B. had a very expensive fountain pen, one, I believe, given to him by his parents upon his passing the bar, perhaps a Mont Blanc — which had not yet become the "status symbol" of later years — and he was extraordinarily reluctant to loan it, but on the few occasions when he did he would carefully and ostentatiously unscrew the top and hold it in his hand, awaiting the return of the pen. Of course if you unconsciously put it into your shirt pocket, the tell-tale ink stain would reveal all.

C.B. not only spoke eloquently and in front of the crackers with as much complexity as on the spur of the moment he could summon — which was always plenty and more than enough to awe them and certainly annoy the hell out of them — but, it was said in the Black community or by family, that he had "swallowed the dictionary" when he was a child. He had, as a child, read the entire unabridged Webster's dictionary cover to cover as another weapon to ward off the ugly whites.

He rarely cited a case without giving it a flowery title that it never really had, i.e., "Spano v. The People of The Grand and Glorious Commonwealth of New York." Of course, his most flowery editing of the actual case citation was when it was a deep South jurisdiction. He could go on for a couple of sentences when citing Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi statutes, such as "The Denizens of that Republic so Dear to the Hearts of Every True Southern Patriot, The Most Noble Jurisdiction of Mississippi vs. Jones."

How he could pull this off without bursting out in laughter, I never understood. There was more than one time when I left the courtroom, the insides of my cheek or my tongue bleeding.

C.B. also had the habit of using a favored phrase, an unnecessary phrase in the opinion of a lot of "jurists" — the kind of subconscious stall between the answer and the next question. It was usually, "Now let me ask you this," followed by a question.

The judge who rode the Americus Circuit was someone who had not followed the traditional legal education route of most of the Judges in Georgia, i.e., U. of Georgia undergraduate on to U. of Georgia Law School. He was of the Planter class and had graduated from Annapolis to then attend the University of Virginia Law School (a "finishing" school for southern aristocracy). Everything about C.B. drove this man crazy, from his erudition, to his courtliness, his impeccable manners, his elegant attire (there I go, "chaneling" C.B. again, because he was fastidious, but extremely tough) to his mere annoying presence. The thing he loathed most, however, was the "let me ask you this" preface to every question. It seemed to drive him crazy.

I always believed this was an unconscious phrase, a way of buying him time to formulate the next perfect question without being interrupted by a Judge telling him to "move along here C.B." My theory was proved correct before this judge when he suddenly burst out in loud and angry tones: "C.B. I ORDER you to cease and desist from interposing an absolutely useless phrase before a question. Just ask the question."

Now these moments were C.B.'s proudest. He called it "augmenting the record." "Let this Court but understand that I mean it no disrespect. I hold this most distinguished, noble and worthy Court in nothing but the highest of respect." This was said with venom dripping from each word, but as he pointed out to me, the record read like an apology. It always reminded me of the words of some famous madam who, when a judge told her that she was showing contempt for the Court replied, "Does it really show?" After this angry admonition by the Court and C.B.'s "augmenting of the record" he posed his next question.

"Now let me ask you this..." The Judge's eyes rolled back in his head and his head dropped to the back of his hands on the bench. He spoke not another word during the examination of any witness. Another victory for "The Colonel." Southern Judges often called him "Colonel" to avoid having to call him "Mr. King." When I asked him afterwards how he dared do such a thing to the Judges as it surely should have gotten him locked up, he looked at me, a puzzled expression on his face, and said "Rob, whatever are you speaking of."

Copyright © Dennis Roberts

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