One week after he cleared his courtroom of white people so he could have a "fireside chat" with the black defendants assembled before him, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr. offered an explanation and -- for anyone offended by his act -- an apology.
"There were no official acts" during the private lecture, he said, "just a frank chat."
"It was not done for race reasons," he said, explaining that he is confronted daily with a stream of criminal acts, "most committed by African-Americans."
"At some point, it needs to come to a halt," said Arrington, citing several cases of senseless violence -- killings over $15 worth of crack cocaine, a wristwatch or for no reason at all, even the night his own sister and brother-in-law were held up at gunpoint at the door of their Atlanta home -- that compelled him to try to reach the young defendants before him.
"These young people are completely out of control," he said, adding, "People can't go to a gas station in my neighborhood at night without somebody coming up and putting a gun on them."
Arrington's decision to hold a "black-only" chat last week came after he had finished a morning slate of bond revocations and sentences, according to an attorney who was present.
Prior to beginning court business Thursday, Arrington, one of the first black graduates of Emory Law School, described his own troubled youth as an impetus for outreach.
"I am a living example," he said. "I was where they are 20, 30 years ago."
Arrington said he began to change only after he approached the late Hamilton Holmes -- one of the first black students admitted to the University of Georgia, and later a professor and associate dean at the Emory University School of Medicine -- for help as a young teen.
"Man, I am in trouble," Arrington recounted. "I cannot read, nor can I write."
Holmes, he said, tutored him every night, allowing him to graduate from Turner High and eventually go on to college and law school.
Several attorneys who were present last week when Arrington made his black-only address did not respond to requests for comment, but veteran defense lawyer Albert A. Mitchell -- who remained in the courtroom -- said he was profoundly affected by Arrington's comments, which he termed both bold and thought-provoking.
"I've often seen judges express their personal views from the bench, their views on law and order," said Mitchell, who is black. But "it was a bit refreshing to see a Superior Court judge express a bit of advocacy from the bench, to tell parents to be better parents, to talk about community."
"A Superior Court judge is one of the most powerful people in the state of Georgia," he said. "They control that courtroom, they control the people in it, and it took us a long time to have African-Americans ascend to that bench.
"I've been practicing law for 30 years, and I've often seen judges use that forum to talk about law and order when they're sending somebody to prison. He had a social commentary; he was saying, 'We need to stop this conveyer belt, endlessly escorting people into the criminal justice system.'"
While his decision to ask whites to leave may have been puzzling to some, Mitchell said he understood Arrington's reasoning.
"He's old school, the same school I'm from," said the lawyer. "The way we came up, if you've got to fuss at your people, you do it in private. I think he was correct, from his life experience, to take that route. ... He didn't know what he was going to say, or what the reaction would be, but it was heavy on his heart and he had to say it."
Arrington's chat, he said, was punctuated with "amens" from the gallery, and concluded with a round of applause.
"Then he brought the white lawyers back in, and they huddled around the bench, and he spoke to them privately," said Mitchell. "I don't know if he apologized or what, but they were supportive."
Although the courtroom-clearing is unique, Arrington's comments are familiar to those who have heard him speak publicly or observed him on the bench, from which he frequently admonishes young defendants.
In a speech at the Butler Street YMCA last year at which he assailed young men "with their pants dragging down," Arrington quoted civil rights leader and minister Vernon Johns as saying, "When you see a good fight, get involved."
He repeated the quote Thursday.
"People of responsibility need to speak up," he said, as murmurs of approval rippled through the courtroom.
Arrington, who spoke before addressing his regular criminal calendar, said his comments would be the last time he spoke on the matter, but reports of his actions have drawn increasing -- and national -- attention. Within the past few days, he has been interviewed by newspapers and broadcast networks, appeared on CNN and -- according to a list of scheduled interviews -- is scheduled to appear on "Good Morning America" and "Fox & Friends" today.