New UI trustee talks about changes for black attorneys

New UI trustee talks about changes for black attorneys

CHAMPAIGN – When James Montgomery began practicing law in Chicago, Cook County had three black attorneys – all men.

There were no black associates at major law firms, no black federal judges and no large black law firms.

Montgomery, 74, now a noted civil rights, criminal defense and personal injury lawyer, was the only black student in his law school class at the University of Illinois. There were just two women; only one graduated.

The legal landscape is much different now, but black lawyers still have a duty to pursue excellence and serve the "unpopular and powerless," he told UI law students Tuesday night.

"Today, the opportunities are boundless," said Montgomery, who was recently appointed to the UI Board of Trustees. "Use some of your time and talent to better your community. It will enrich your life."

Montgomery's visit was sponsored by the Black Law Students Association in honor of Black History Month.

His career spans a half-century. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the UI in 1953 and a law degree in 1956.

He started out taking any case that came his way but also sought out tough civil rights cases, usually pro bono. In the 1960s, he represented a number of Black Panthers and successfully sued the Chicago Board of Education for de facto segregation.

In the early 1980s, he served as corporation counsel for the city of Chicago under Mayor Harold Washington.

In 2000, he teamed up with attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. (who died in 2005) to form Cochran, Cherry, Smith & Montgomery in Chicago. He's won record settlements in personal injury cases, including $18 million for the wrongful death of LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year-old computer analyst shot and killed by a Chicago police officer. His office now has several high-profile cases, including the mother of Rashidi Wheeler, a Northwestern football player who died during football practice in August 2001.

He said the UI "provided me with a legal education that allowed me to compete with the best products of Harvard and Yale."

But his experience in law school, where he was "roundly ignored" by other students and some faculty, was a driving force in his career. He was, he said, an "angry young lawyer" who trusted no judge and considered most authority figures "fascists."

"I was fighting the system every step of the way," he said.

In one divorce case early on, he heard a white judge make a demeaning comment to another black attorney, who simply let it slide. Montgomery was furious, and when the judge later made a similar remark to him, Montgomery shot back, "Pardon me, your honor, did I hear you right?"

The judge, he said, looked at him quizzically, as if to say, "'I'd better be careful with this crazy Negro.'" He said he never got another demeaning comment from any judge in that circuit.

"If we do not respect ourselves, we cannot expect others to respect us," he said.

He said too many black Americans still suffer from a "slave mentality," buying into the superiority of whites. He said he often ran into the attitude that, "if you get in real trouble, you'd better get a white lawyer."

Black Americans should take pride in their history all the way back to Africa, where great civilizations once produced pioneers in medicine, law, architecture and math, he said.

He also urged the students to patronize black-owned businesses and help rebuild communities crippled by violence and poverty.

"If you look at the destruction that goes on in our community every day – black-on-black violence is rampant, kids being killed every day" – it shows a lack of self-respect, he said.

Earlier, Montgomery said he is "extremely impressed" with UI President B. Joseph White and looks foward to serving on the board. He's particularly interested in participation by women and minorities in UI contracts.

He declined to give his views on Chief Illiniwek but acknowledged he's happy to be joining the board after the issue has been mostly resolved.