June 4, 2009
By SI DUNN
Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Municipal judgeships are not posts of high political and civic visibility. Yet a milestone was passed on July 19, 1966, when Louis A. Bedford Jr. was named an associate judge in Dallas' municipal courts system. He became the first black judge in Dallas County.
A family man, Bedford took the bench on weekends and some nights to hear cases involving traffic offenses, zoning violations and misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Meanwhile, he maintained a successful law practice, helped New Hope Baptist Church grow and took an expanding interest in Dallas and Texas politics. He also played significant roles in the ongoing struggle for equal rights in Dallas and across the state.
As Darwin Payne's insightful and well-crafted biography displays, Bedford seldom was visible on the front lines of civil rights demonstrations and other protests. Instead, he was an important voice of support and reason behind the scenes, serving as a respected link between young, militant activists and the established black leaders in Dallas.
In 1979, he resigned as a judge and made runs for city and state offices. When those efforts failed, he managed campaigns for other black candidates.
Payne's book adds significant details and clarity to the history of the ongoing quest for equal rights in Dallas and Texas. It also provides an engrossing look inside the city's black middle class and legal community at a time when blacks remained barred, legally or through white resistance, from many facilities and activities.
Louis A. Bedford Jr.(right) with Rhonda Hunter, the Dallas Bar Association's first African American president.
Bedford was the fourth black lawyer to achieve membership in the previously all-white Dallas Bar Association. He felt isolated at first, Payne writes, but received a committee appointment near the end of his first year and worked hard to expand that opening. "Far more than any of the other new black attorneys, he became involved in the association's activities."
His willingness to push hard for change within established systems eventually won him widespread admiration. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Commission for Nominating Federal Circuit Judges for the Fifth Circuit. Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe commissioned him an admiral in the Texas Navy. Many other honors followed.
The book's afterword hails Bedford as a man who can "see the future in the past and ... use that vision to guide action in the present." Payne's writing makes clear why that high praise is well deserved.
Darwin Payne is professor emeritus of communications at Southern Methodist University. He’s the author of biographies of U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes (Indomitable Sarah, SMU, 2004), and the writers Owen Wister and Frederick Lewis Allen. He’s written extensively on Dallas history, including Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity.
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