Carl Maxey | Fighting to transform the law

Carl Maxey, photo courtesy the Spokane Spokesman-Review, 1997.

In 1946, the young WWII veteran Carl Maxey got off the bus in Spokane and was refused service in the bus station cafeteria. This incident, combined with a “social awareness [that] was born in the outrageously segregated Army,” inspired Maxey to become a lawyer. After attending Gonzaga Law and becoming the first African American to pass the Bar in Eastern Washington. Maxey spent decades making a difference in Spokane and across the nation.

Fighting for a chance

Carl Maxey was born in 1924 in Tacoma, and was adopted by Carl and Carolyn Maxey. By 1930, Maxey was an orphan placed in the Spokane Children’s Home. In 1936, Maxey and Milton Burns, the only other “colored” child at the Home, were kicked out and sent to the only place that would take them, the Juvenile Detention Center. Just a few months later, Jesuit priest Father Cornelius E. Byrne took both boys under his wing at the Sacred Heart Mission in DeSmet, Idaho. Father Byrne eventually arranged for Maxey to attend Gonzaga High School. After high school, Maxey served four years in a military medical battalion.

Taking challenges head-on

After a short stint at the University of Oregon, Maxey began classes at Gonzaga University School of Law in 1948 on a boxing scholarship. Over two years, “King Carl” built a 32-0 bout record and won the NCAA boxing championship, tying as the first NCAA championship ever for Gonzaga. After the Championship, Maxey buckled down academically and graduated with his J.D. in 1951; he was the first African American to pass the Bar in Eastern Washington later that same year. Almost immediately, Maxey took up a case of Eugene Breckenridge, a case that effectively desegregated the hiring of teachers by the Spokane school district.

Ending discrimination in Washington

Through the next several decades, Carl Maxey took on case after case that helped end racial discrimination across the board in Washington state. Cases Maxey took on had a hand in ending redlining (increasing the cost of or denying services on the basis of race), housing discrimination via restrictive covenants, discrimination by social clubs and the discriminatory practices of some local businesses. Maxey took on several high-profile criminal and civil cases during his career, including defending Gonzaga student that was arrested for shouting “Warmonger!” at Spiro Agnew and acting as one of four defense lawyers for the Seattle Seven. The New York Times, in a 1997 story about Maxey, described his work in this way:

Mr. Maxey won such widespread admiration that he became a member of the city’s power elite, serving on a host of civic and corporate boards. He defended prominent white defendants in some of the city’s most celebrated criminal cases, but he also represented many obscure black clients and others without charge. … [Maxey] was named by five Presidents as state chairman for the United States Civil Rights Commission.

A legacy of transformation

Through his tireless legal advocacy, Carl Maxey became known as one of the most influential legal leaders in Washington state. Both of Maxey’s sons, Bill and Bevan, followed their father’s footsteps, graduating from Gonzaga University School of Law and becoming lawyers. In 2006, nine years after Maxey’s death, the Washington State Bar Association Diversity Section instituted a scholarship in Maxey’s name, given to Gonzaga Law students that intend to stay in Spokane and further issues of diversity. A bronze bust of Maxey in the Gonzaga University School of Law Library simply states “He made a difference.”

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