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The last few years of Judge William Bryant’s life were difficult for him. As he would have said, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He agonized over the long illness of his beloved wife, Astaire. He was devastated by her loss. He himself suffered unrelievable pain from his disabled hips, both of which were surgically replaced. But he soldiered on, trying cases until this past summer. With the support of his secretary, Diane Steed; Marshal Kirk Bowden; his judicial colleagues; and his clerks, he made the courthouse a home away from home. He had worked there since its dedication more than 50 years ago. All that said, we are not here just to mourn Judge Bryant. We are also here to celebrate him, his wisdom, his wit. His wisdom is spread throughout the records of the several hundred civil and criminal cases that he tried with great skill. His wit was classic, reconstructed from memory. He usually attributed the bon mots to what “the old folks say.” For example, to a big talker: “Don’t shoot until you have cleared the leather,” or “Don’t go hunting for bear and give the bear the gun.” To a pool-playing big talker (Judge Bryant was familiar with pool halls): “When you put too much English on the ball, you miscue.” LEAVING WETUMPKA William B. Bryant came to Washington under less auspicious circumstances than obtained as he departed us two weeks ago. He was born 94 years ago in Wetumpka, Ala. He has described Wetumpka as “just a wide place in the road” (which probably wasn’t paved at that time). The year of his birth, 1911, was only 45 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. That fact was not yet fully accepted in places like Wetumpka.
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The Bryant emigration from Alabama to the District of Columbia began when he was less than a year old. His grandfather, the head of the family, was threatened by a mob after an altercation in a store he owned in “downtown” Wetumpka. Disguised in women’s clothes, he walked through the mob and hopped a freight to Birmingham. From there he made his way to Washington and in due time sent for his family, including one-year-old William Bryant. Six or seven years later, the family elders decided to “go back home” for a visit. They boarded a train at Union Station. The next stop was Alexandria, Va. At that point a conductor came through and told the Bryant party to move to the passenger space in the baggage car. As the family, including seven-or-so-year-old Bill, entered the car, two men with side arms on their hips climbed into the baggage compartment. They were mail guards. Bill was very frightened by their weapons, so frightened that he was thereafter reluctant to go South again. In 1939, Bryant graduated first in his class from Howard University School of Law. As he was looking for a job, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal was beginning his field research in the South for his seminal book on the effects of racial segregation, titled An American Dilemma. Myrdal’s U.S. agent was Ralph Bunche, winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize and Bryant’s lifelong friend and patron. Bunche, aware of Bryant’s brilliant law school record, offered him a job as an investigator to go down South and interview African-Americans about their experiences with segregation. Stung by his family recollections from Wetumpka and his own from the baggage car, Bryant rejected the offer. Unable to get a job as a lawyer, he worked as an elevator operator until Bunche engaged him as a collator and coordinator here in the District for the Myrdal project. ‘EVERY HUMAN BEING’ In that same year of 1939, World War II broke out in Europe, and a case came to the Supreme Court from Florida. Two African-American teenagers, charged with murder, were subjected to a form of torture then known as “the third degree.” They confessed. With their confessions in evidence, a Florida jury convicted them and sentenced them to death. They appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court at that time included Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justices Harlan Fiske Stone, Owen Roberts, and James McReynolds � all staunch conservatives. Yet in an opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, with an eye toward the tyranny that was overwhelming Europe and threatening the entire world, a unanimous Court overturned the convictions. Wrote Justice Black in Chambers v. State of Florida (1940): “Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are non-conforming victims of prejudice and public excitement. Due process of law, preserved for all by our Constitution, commands that no such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death. No higher duty, no more solemn responsibility, rests upon this Court, than that of translating into living law and maintaining this constitutional shield deliberately planned and inscribed for the benefit of every human being subject to our Constitution � of whatever race, creed or persuasion.” Recent law graduate Bryant, scholar that he was, knew the Chambers opinion. I know of no other lawyer or judge who so faithfully lived by its message. FACING MASSIVE RESISTANCE Fast-forward to 1954 when the Warren Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown decision stirred up a firestorm of “Massive Resistance.” The Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 senators and 81 congressmen from the Deep South, proclaimed: “We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.” A constitutional crisis threatened. The fate of racial justice was hanging precariously in the balance. “Impeach Earl Warren” stickers proliferated. In that climate of opinion, U.S. District Judge Alexander Holtzoff appointed William Bryant to represent a limited young African-American named Andrew Mallory. Mallory had been charged with rape of a white woman, a crime then punishable by death in the District of Columbia. The prosecutors had spent eight hours interrogating him. In that time, they obtained his confession. Only then did they go before a magistrate to arraign him. Holtzoff admitted the confession into evidence over Bryant’s objections. Mallory was convicted and, like the Chambers defendants, sentenced to death. We have on tape Judge Bryant’s Supreme Court argument in Mallory v. United States. It is a classic. Bryant, then 45 years old and intimately familiar with the ways and byways of the U.S. courthouse, dramatically catalogued the substantial number of judges and magistrates whose doors the prosecutors passed without stopping to arraign Mallory � until he confessed. The Court was obviously impressed by Bill’s powerful, sophisticated, fact-based argument. The justices unanimously set aside the verdict and freed Mallory. I believe that few, if any, of the justices in 1957 had ever worked or otherwise interrelated with African-Americans, particularly a lawyer so articulate and professional as Mr. Bryant. (The conspicuous exception would be Thurgood Marshall, who had argued before the justices many times by 1957.) It may well be that appreciation of Bryant’s polished professionalism served to strengthen their resolve to see to it that the principles of Brown survived “Massive Resistance.” FOR THOSE WHO MIGHT SUFFER The Chambers principle that courts stand against all winds that blow is well reflected in Judge Bryant’s years of service to the law. These are just three examples from many: 1. His brilliantly successful argument before the Supreme Court in Mallory. 2. His 25-year effort (painfully frustrated) to civilize the living conditions of inmates at the D.C. Jail. In one of his prison-related opinions, almost echoing Justice Black’s Chambers peroration, Judge Bryant wrote in Campbell v. McGruder (1975): “These conditions simply are not to be tolerated in a civilized society, much less in our national capital. These are conditions that turn men into animals, conditions which degrade and dehumanize.” 3. In more recent years, his silent protest of what he considered disproportionately harsh sentences required by the 1984 federal sentencing guidelines. He would try criminal cases on the merits to relieve his overburdened active-judge colleagues, provided that where a jury convicted a defendant in Judge Bryant’s court, the colleague who transferred the case would impose the sentence. Judge Bryant was chief judge when I came to the U.S. District Court here. He has been my friend, mentor, and confidant. I think I was one of his. We will miss him. It is unlikely that there will ever be the likes of William B. Bryant again.


Senior U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer delivered a version of these remarks at the funeral service for Judge William B. Bryant, held Nov. 18 at Howard University School of Law.

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