Loren Miller was one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights attorneys from the 1940s through the early 1960s and successfully fought discrimination in housing and education. Alongside Thurgood Marshall, Miller argued two landmark civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decisions effectively abolished racially restrictive housing covenants. One of these cases, Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), is taught in nearly every American law school today. Later, the two men played key roles in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools. Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist recovers this remarkable figure from the margins of history and for the first time fully reveals his life for what it was: an extraordinary American story and a critical chapter in the annals of racial justice.
Born to a former slave and a white midwesterner in 1903, Loren Miller lived the quintessential American success story, blazing his own path to rise from rural poverty to a position of power and influence. Author Amina Hassan reveals Miller as a fearless critic of those in power and an ardent debater whose acid wit was known to burn “holes in the toughest skin and eat right through double-talk, hypocrisy, and posturing.”
As a freshly minted member of the bar who preferred political activism and writing to the law, Miller set out for Los Angeles from Kansas in 1929. Hassan describes his early career as a fiery radical journalist, as well as his ownership of the California Eagle, one of the longest-running African American newspapers in the West. In his work with the California branch of the ACLU, Miller sought to halt the internment of West Coast Japanese American citizens, helped integrate the U.S. military and the Los Angeles Fire Department, and defended Black Muslims arrested in a deadly street battle with the LAPD. In 1964, Governor Edmund G. Brown appointed Miller as a Municipal Court justice for Los Angeles County, honoring his ceaseless commitment to improving the lives of Americans regardless of their race or ethnicity.
“Either we shall have to make democracy work for every American,” Miller declared, or “we shall not be able to preserve it for any American.” The story told here is of an American original who defied societal limitations to reshape the racial and political landscape of twentieth-century America.
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Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist
By Amina Hassan
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Amina Hassan
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Storming the Barricades
Loren Miller died on Bastille Day, a fitting coincidence for a man dedicated to storming the hush-hush of courtroom injustice. In the coolness of the summer evening, at 9:53 P.M., on July 14, 1967, a Friday, he succumbed to pulmonary emphysema aggravated by pneumonia. Six days earlier, he had entered Los Angeles's Temple Hospital, struggling and barely able to breathe. By noon on July 19, thousands of people overflowed the capacity of the First African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at Eighth Street and Towne Avenue. Filling the pews or crowding outdoors was virtually every black lawyer and most of the judges in the city. "A multitude of greats, near greats" — among them dignitaries and just plain Joes — came to pay final respects to the great man. Lena Horne, the show-stopping beauty of film and music, blacklisted in the 1950s for her political views, spoke at the ceremony and later acknowledged hundreds of telegrams, letters, and condolences. Mourners came from far and near to attend the rites of the longtime civil rights leader and prolific writer, lawyer of intimidating rectitude, and key strategist in the legal campaign to overturn racial discrimination, particularly in housing and education — a man, who by sheer force of will and determination, improved the lives of those on the periphery of justice.
The news of Miller's death was a second blow for African Americans in close succession. Two giants of African American culture and longtime friends who even looked alike had died within six weeks of each other. First Langston Hughes, then Loren Miller.
On the West Coast, Reverend Dr. H. Hartford Brookins, the popular pastor of Los Angeles's first church for the "Negro people in the city," delivered the eulogy. The city's leading black church, housed in an impressive neo-Gothic structure, had been founded and financed in 1872 by Biddy Mason (1818–91), a former slave, midwife, local real estate entrepreneur, and philanthropist, along with Charles Owens, her son-in-law. "Everybody has to say it sooner or later and the time has come for me to say goodbye," quoted the reverend from one of Miller's speeches. Then he read from Miller's parting article on the sale of the California Eagle: "I don't even know whether my writings served a good purpose. ... But no man can be sure his intentions came to good ends, I'll just have to let the whole thing go with the hope that I did more good than wrong. You can be the judge. ... We cannot undo our yesterdays. ... Let us as literal and free men work to overcome the restrictions our yesterdays impose."
The reverend read from the eighth chapter of the book of Jeremiah (verses 20–23), the textual basis for "There is a Balm in Gilead," one of the more important traditional African American spirituals. Miller, he said, often used these passages when addressing the hurt and suffering of society's most vulnerable, asking, "Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?" Brookins, profoundly moved, composed a picture of Miller as a doctor treating society's ills, a man who devoted himself to affecting and challenging its social policies. It is interesting that Miller, who believed more in the spirit of justice than in the invisible existence of deities, was known for reciting these Bible verses.
Reverend Lloyd Galloway of Lincoln Memorial United Church of Christ, a leader of civil rights causes in Los Angeles, gave the funeral's opening prayer. Twenty years earlier the Congregational minister had eulogized Miller's brother-in-law, the musician Milton V. Ellsworth. From the hundreds of telegrams and messages received, four were read by Horne: notes from Robert C. Weaver, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Ralph Bunche, America's highest official in the United Nations, who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize; Roy Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In a later editorial, the NAACP said that Miller's death "deprives the Negro race and the nation of one of the keenest minds and most persistent workers in the continued struggle to achieve a viable pluralistic society."
At the time of the funeral, Thurgood Marshall, Miller's longtime legal colleague and sometime co-counsel, was sitting through his third day of hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination to the United States Supreme Court. Beforehand, he sent his sincerest condolences to the family. Abraham Lincoln Wirin, "Mr. ACLU," the general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, was able to attend and speak dearly of his old friend and legal colleague. "Loren Miller did not finish all the work he set out to do when he first began the practice of law forty years ago. Nonetheless, he left a rich legacy for the America he so loved," said Wirin. That work, he continued, included drafting the majority of the briefs in the high court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483), which established that separate was not equal, and that school segregation violated the Constitution. Wirin added, "Not so well known was his close involvement with the American Civil Liberties Union. ... In 1942, he was one of the two lawyers to join ACLU counsel in the federal courts to challenge the wartime evacuation from California of Americans of Japanese descent," a bold position amid wartime anti-Japanese sentiment.
Dr. H. Claude Hudson, a prominent Los Angeles leader who served with Miller on the national NAACP board, promised to "carry the torch until we have won the victory." Other tributes came from Cecil Poole of the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco and Edward Rutledge, executive director of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing in New York, one of the many organizations that Miller served on as an executive board member. Nathaniel Colley, director of the national board of the NAACP, described Miller as "Mr. Civil Rights of the Western United States," whose first law office at Vernon and Central Avenue became the battleground of legal work for the fight for justice. He read Miller's obituary aloud just moments before Reverend Brookins began the eulogy. Colley served as Miller's co-counsel in the California state court decree that ended discrimination in the sale of housing "where sales involved the Federal Housing Administration [and] Veterans Administration financing."
As the recessional played, the pallbearers carried the coffin outside to the waiting hearse. James Ronald Derry was one of the pallbearers. A member of the First AME Church, Derry arrived in Los Angeles in 1932 with Langston Hughes, before Miller and Hughes took off for Russia. Another pallbearer was Miller's dear friend and neighbor James H. Garrott, the architect who designed the Miller family home in the Silver Lake district. Norman Hopkins, mortician and owner of Peoples Funeral Home, as well as a neighbor of the Miller family, helped convey the coffin to Rosedale Cemetery, the first cemetery in Los Angeles open to all races and creeds.
Inside the church, a little girl "stepped out of the throng" to present "the widow, Mrs. Juanita Miller, with a lovely long-stemmed rose." Later, Mrs. Miller wrote the Los Angeles Sentinel to thank the paper (cofounded by her husband) for its recent issue on him. She wrote, "We found solace and encouragement in your individual and collective tribute and in the words, deeds and prayers of our many beloved friends. ... That Loren was so valued and respected by so many is a valued inspiration. ... Thank you so very much."
In truth, the soft-spoken, humble, scholarly looking, mixed-race man had become a municipal court judge at the urging of his wife, Juanita. He accepted the post in 1964, by some accounts to leave a pension behind for his wife and children — for whom he said he was humbly grateful "for their willingness to endure deprivation that I might do my best in the struggle." Though he earned so little during his lifetime of work as a civil rights lawyer and struggling newspaper journalist and publisher, he died free of debt, and the owner of his Silver Lake home, where his wife continued to live until her death three years later. He died confident that the future held great promise.
Loren Miller lived to see Thurgood Marshall on his way to a seat at the U.S. Supreme Court, the first black American appointed to serve there. Together, the two attorneys effectively abolished restrictive racial housing covenants in two landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 and again in 1953. The impact of those victories and others — founded in Miller's belief that the law "may not eliminate prejudice but it can and does prevent the translation of private prejudice into discriminatory conduct" — propelled him to pave the way for the integration of the U.S. military and the Los Angeles Fire Department, as well as the passage of fair employment practices legislation in California. Brad Pye, Jr., the sports writer who worked for Miller when he owned the California Eagle, wrote how "Cuzz" — as Miller was affectionately known around the newspaper — enriched his life. Using sports metaphors, Pye wrote, "In the civil rights field to me he was the Jim Brown of the legal profession knocking down racial barriers all around him. He dribbled through the courts of the land like Elgin Baylor and scored as many points in the legal field as Wilt Chamberlain does on the basketball courts. As a lawyer, journalist, author, publisher and scholar he was as all-around a man as Willie Mays is on the diamond."
Many of Miller's friends and admirers averred that Miller would have reached federal office had he lived longer. Carey McWilliams, author, editor, and lawyer, wrote that his dear friend Loren Miller, along with William Henry Hastie and Charles Hamilton Huston, were "definite supreme court prospects." Ben Margolis, who, with McWilliams, helped defend the Hollywood Ten, said, "Loren was one of the best lawyers with whom I have ever come in contact." "[He] should have been on the supreme court of the state. He had that kind of capacity, and he had the desire." Judge Earl C. Broady felt similarly: "Loren Miller should have gone to the Supreme Court. But he might not have fit in with his liberal, trade liberal philosophy. But he had the type of mind that belongs there. He not only had knowledge of the laws that existed, but he had ideas about where the law should go." Miller's cousin Leon Washington, cofounder and publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, wrote, "He should have been on the superior of the district court of appeals or the Supreme Court of the land." A decade later, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., justice of U.S. Court of Appeals, Third District, felt the same way, insisting, "In paying tribute to the black lawyers of our country, that one man who 'would have been, should have been' an appellate judge or a member of the U.S. Supreme Court was the late Loren Miller." Others felt that he was barely second in importance to Thurgood Marshall.
Besides racism, what curtailed Miller's prospect for anything higher than an appointment to the municipal court? Certainly his long association with Red Front groups was hardly an aid for advancement, not to mention his defense in court of Communists, his writing for leftist publications, and a stint in 1935 as an editor of the New Masses. When Miller was appointed to the municipal court in 1964, conservative Los Angeles broadcaster George Putnam of KTTV became enraged. Spouting vitriol, he told his viewers that Miller voted "Red" and wrote for various Communist newspapers. Putnam's script, "Judge Loren Miller in the Congressional Record," found its way into Miller's Federal Bureau of Investigation file.
Up until the year he died, the FBI continued to monitor Miller's activities. In February 1967, the FBI reported that when he spoke at a National Lawyers Guild luncheon in memoriam to Daniel Marshall, who broke the barrier to mixed-race marriages in California in the case Perez v. Sharp, "Judge Loren Miller ... has a hard time breathing and it definitely affects his speaking ability," due to an affliction, "that has been prevalent for some years but has become more pronounced." Two months before his death, under the pretext of looking for a woman named "Laura Miller," agents called his home. The bureau, before closing out its file on Miller, requested his death certificate from the Los Angeles County Registrar.
Miller took his fundamental creed of equality from Frederick Douglass, whose exploits he discovered as a young Kansas farm boy. He believed that one must do what one thinks is ethical and just. "Of course it isn't always easy to know what is right in a specific situation," wrote Miller to Edward, his youngest son. He continued,
but the best a person can do is to think through that situation and do what seems to him to be right. ... Later events may prove that he was mistaken but nobody can foresee everything and if an individual does what seems to be the right thing in light of the information he then has at his command, that is all that can be asked of him. The greatest regrets I have arise out of my failure to use the information at my command as a guide to action.
Underneath, like Marx, thoroughly opposed to the property-owning class, Miller was a good romantic humanist, believing in a just society and the uniqueness of the individual. Though he remained a Marxist, he turned away from Communism in the late 1930s when he "realized there was a great fraud in the communist claims." Nor was he much for conventional religion. From the evidence, he was likely akin to his friend Ralph Bunche, also a Marxist, who said on the prospect of death that he approached the subject "calmly and philosophically," without fear. A telling comment comes from Miller's son Edward who said the only time he went to church was when his father gave a speech. According to Miller's niece Jane Kerina, neither Miller nor his wife, Juanita, was a churchgoer: "Loren would read the Sunday paper instead."
Three months before he died, Miller was healthy enough to travel in April with Juanita to New York to receive a "special award from the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing" at the Waldorf Astoria. The surviving record shows Miller in good form mentally, apparently undaunted by the setback of poor health. He had emphysema from years of smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, and his voice was still strong, though less so than four years earlier when he had spoken on "A Negro Looks at the Fourteenth Amendment" at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.
Just before leaving Los Angeles for his final trip to New York, Miller wrote his son Edward, who at the time was serving in the navy aboard the USS Saint Paul, off the coast of Vietnam: "No matter how long I've been planning to go some place I am never really ready and the last few days are spent in a tizzy of preparations that should have been long since completed. The situation is worse this time because I haven't been anywhere for a long time. ... Pete is going to take us to the air port. He will have to come over because somebody has to muscle the bags up and down stairs and I am not up to it." When he arrived in New York, Henry Lee Moon, public relations director of the NAACP, wrote, "Although then suffering from his ailment, he forcefully delivered a memorable address, inoffensive and scholarly. His illness had not dulled his charm and wit and thrust."
While in New York, Miller's old traveling companion Frank Montero and his white wife hosted a party, "which served as a reunion of a group which went to Russia in the Thirties to make a movie." Miller reminisced with the couple in their plush Riverdale home — an evident benefit of marrying an heiress — with Langston Hughes, Ted Poston, married couple Mollie Lewis and Henry Lee Moon, and a few others who had not accompanied them on their Russian travels in 1932. Shortly after the gathering, Langston Hughes, then sixty-five, was admitted to New York's Polyclinic Hospital. Following surgery two weeks later, he died on May 22, at 9:40 P.M.
It is said that most men wish for admiration, long for applause, and seek it. "The wise man," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "does not run after fortune, but he is not insensitive to glory." Miller, no different, wanted recognition and luckily received it in great quantities. Yet he yearned for more. His friend Carey McWilliams, whom California historian Kevin Starr called California's finest nonfiction writer, recounted, "The black community at [the time of the 1930s to the 1950s] hadn't sufficiently grounded itself so that it could develop elements that would support a man of Loren's caliber. This was a great disappointment to him and to everybody else. And this was unfortunate because he had an extraordinary background and experience."
Excerpted from Loren Miller by Amina Hassan. Copyright © 2015 Amina Hassan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
List of Acronyms and Abbreviations,
1. Storming the Barricades,
2. The Making of a Dissenter,
3. Moving to Los Angeles,
4. Sunday, We Leave for Russia,
5. Returning to America,
6. Pursuing Justice,
7. The Case of the Century,
8. Fourth Estate to the Judiciary,