By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Tributes to civil rights “giant” and attorney, Russell Bertrand Sugarmon Jr. flooded the Internet Monday as news spread quickly of his death.
One of the most touching tributes came from his daughter, Elena DeCosta Williams, who took to Facebook to express her love and admiration.
“To the world, he was Judge Russell B. Sugarmon, Jr. To me, he was Dad. He was a tireless civil rights warrior who fought for equality and humanity throughout Tennessee and across the Nation.”
Mr. Sugarmon, 89,was one of a group of African Americans who made the first serious bid for a major city office in Memphis, opening the door for future black leaders. He became the second African-American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly after Reconstruction as a state representative.
As a member of the Memphis Branch NAACP, Mr. Sugarmon was instrumental in using the law to fight legal battles to desegregate public transportation, schools and restaurants. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, Rutgers University and Harvard Law School, he became a judge in 1987 and was re-elected numerous times.
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators said, “Judge Sugarmon’s accomplishments obviously make him a Memphis icon. But in addition to all of the career accolades, it should be noted what an extraordinary husband, father, grandfather, friend and human being he was.
“Everything he stood for in his public life, he also demonstrated in his private life,” Hardaway said. “Russell Sugarmon was a humble, kind and good man. The members of Tennessee Black Caucus are grateful for the generation of giants of conviction, advocacy and activism that made it possible for us to serve today. ”
Colleague and long-time, personal friend, Mike Cody, remembered Mr. Sugarmon as “a strong Democratic power broker and civil rights giant.”
“I met Russ in 1960 when he came to work for Birch Porter & Johnson. He was chairman of the Democratic Party back in those days. Back then, he and A.W. Willis were a team. They, along with Dr. Ben Hooks, broke down so many walls of segregation.”
Cody, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said Mr. Sugarmon left his mark on this city “as well as all of us. And I tell you, this city owes a great debt of gratitude for his contributions toward making us all better.”
Congressman Steve Cohen released a statement Monday afternoon, saying, Mr. Sugarmon was a political genius who “guided many campaigns to victory and always fought the good fight. He worked tirelessly even when victory wasn’t in the cards and kept the faith, knowing that it would be down the line.
“Russell Sugarmon was one of the most learned people on politics and history in our community,” Cohen noted, referring to Mr. Sugarmon as a mentor, supporter and friend. “His influence cannot be overstated. Collaborations with a biracial group of Memphians and his progressive leadership has made Memphis the city it is today.”
Painting a picture
In 1946, Mr. Sugarmon graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at age 15. Drawing upon his online biography, this fuller picture emerges:
Mr. Sugarmon was born May 11, 1929, the year of America’s stock market crash, in Memphis to Russell and Lessye Hank Sugarmon. He grew up in South Memphis and attended Co-Operative Grammar School.
After graduating from BTW, he attended Morehouse College for one year. He received an A.B. in Political Science from Rutgers University in 1950. In 1953 he received a law degree from Harvard Law School and attended Boston University‘s Graduate School of Finance.
He practiced as an attorney in Memphis in the firm Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis and Caldwell. In 1959, Mr. Sugarmon ran for Public Works Commissioner, the first African-American in Memphis to run for a major city office.
According the biography, the outgoing commissioner, Henry Loeb, forced most of the other candidates to withdraw from the election, so as not to split the white vote among several candidates. Bill Ferris, the only white man remaining on the ballot, won the post.
Sugarmon served in the Tennessee House of Representatives as a Democrat from the 11th District from 1967 to 1969.
Mr. Sugarmon’s son, Tarik B. Sugarmon, is a Memphis City Court judge who in 2014 ran for Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court, and presently serves as the Division Two Judge in Memphis Municipal Courts.
Taking note of “one of the greatest civil rights leaders,” Memphis Branch NAACP President Deidre Malone said Mr. Sugarmon was “a major supporter of the NAACP. He spent a great deal of his time in court, before he became a judge, working to get NAACP Memphis Branch members out of jail.
“Judge Sugarmon has left a legacy for public service for others to follow,” Malone said. “He will be missed. We offer condolences and prayers to the Sugarmon family.”
Mr. Sugarmon’s daughter completed her online tribute to her father with this:
“To me, he was the man who looked down on a 12 year old little girl with braces, glasses and pimples and told her she was beautiful. He was the man who held me when I cried, whose eyes lit up whenever I walked into the room, who always made me feel like a shining star in his eyes.
“I wish every little girl could have a father as sweet and wonderful and kind as the one I was Blessed with…..I love you so very much Dad and I always will…”