Densho Digital Repository
JACL Philadelphia Oral History Collection
Title: William Marutani Interview
Narrator: William Marutani
Interviewer: Herbert J. Horikawa
Location: Medford, New Jersey
Date: October 23, 1994
Densho ID: ddr-phljacl-1-14-4

<Begin Segment 4>

HH: And then as far as your law career is concerned, then how would you describe that?

WM: Well, first of all, I took law, not to become a lawyer. Because I figured nobody's going to hire an Oriental lawyer except Orientals, and they don't pay very well anyway. But I went into law primarily as a background to get into business. I figured that if I'm going to go into business, it won't hurt to be a lawyer at the same time. So I applied to come to the Delaware valley area, which I did, into Philadelphia. And at that time, in order to become a lawyer, to be licensed, you had to spend some clerkship time with that law firm. I applied to several law firms, and McCoy, Evans and Lewis was one of them. I had an offer from three different law firms, but I decided to it with McCoy, Evans. This was only for the preceptorship now, six months at that time. Well, as things worked out, before the six months were up, they offered me a job as an associate. And the offer was not stupendous by today's standards, but it's more than I had ever earned in my younger days before that time, so I took it. And then eventually I still wanted to go into business, by the way. But eventually they offered me a partnership again at much more money than I had ever seen before. So I took the partnership and spent some time there until 1975 when I was given an appointment to the Common Pleas bench by Judge Milton Shapp.

HH: Before we get to that, one of the things that I recall that you were involved in, was in voter registration. Can you briefly give an idea of what you...

WM: Well, what happened was that I served as a civil rights lawyer in 1965, I think it was, down in Louisiana. Although in '66, the following year, I went back again, this time in Mississippi. It was in Mississippi that the voter registration brouhaha arose. There was a young African American down there in Mississippi who was registering other African Americans to vote. And apparently the social structure didn't count with that kind of thing, some Black boy doing this kind of thing. And so they rigged up a whole lot of charge against him of grand theft, and I defended that boy in the courtroom in Black Hawk, Mississippi, as I recall. Well, we all knew --

HH: That experience, you're doing, being involved in a trial under those circumstances in Mississippi.

WM: Well, looking back now, I'm not so sure I would do it, because I was kind of foolish. Because, frankly, it was at the risk of my life. I mean, they threw a bomb, a pipe bomb at our law firm and blew the entire outside in and out. The only thing about me in particular is because of my ethnicity, I was kind of a strange looking creature to everybody down there. Blacks they knew, whites they knew. I'm talking about the power structure down there. And so they didn't know quite what to make of me, was I Black or was I white? And I wasn't so sure myself which I was closer to. And that's illustrated by a point in Mississippi, not too far from Black Hawk. I got hungry during the daytime, I was driving through the countryside to interview some witnesses. So I looked on the map and saw a little town not too far from where I was. And I drove into that town, down the slope of a hill, and you could make a movie set right out of that place. One gas station, dry goods store, café, that's all it was, and wooden sidewalks. Going to the café now, I'm not so sure, I know one is white and other is black, and I'm not down there crusading, that's not my job. My job is to do lawyering, not to raise Cain down there. It was not a sit-in as far as I was concerned, so I didn't know which door to go through. If I guessed wrong, I think something physical might occur to me. So I pondered a bit, and a fellow was walking by, a white man was walking by and I said, "Sir, where's the door to this café?" I knew where the door -- actually, I was asking which one should I go through? He pointed at one and it was a "white" door. So I walked in, and there were a bunch of fellows around, literally sitting around a coal stove like you see in the movies. I guess they call them "crackers," I don't mean to demean them. And there's a fellow behind the counter, and I was hoping I went through the right door. And before I ate, I asked the man there, "Where's the toilet?" I wanted to wash my hands. He pointed though the door and I went in there. And as I was relieving myself and then washed my hands, there was a bang on the door. I said, "Oh, boy, this is it, I've come to the wrong place." And I said, "Yeah?" He said, "I'm leaving a towel for you outside to wipe your hands." And sure enough, after I opened the door and looked, there was a clean linen towel. I left a tip that was bigger than my meal. All I got was a hamburger, by the way.

HH: And then that was your experience in Mississippi, but then you had another trip in Louisiana?

WM: Yeah, I was in Louisiana, and the Bogalusa schools in Washington Parish had not been desegregated. New Orleans itself had been, but out in the boondocks they were still doing it the same old way. So we had filed a suit against the Bogalusa School Board, actually the Washington Parish, almost called Terminus. And it was in federal court down in New Orleans. And I tried to work -- to make a long story short -- I tried to work out a deal with the Bogalusa School District. I felt that if I asked for or demanded immediate desegregation, at that point, there'd be things flying all over the place. So I worked out a deal whereby we would it in gradually. First graders desegregated, second graders the following year. So that eventually, over a twelve-year period, the whole system would be desegregated. We worked that out, and with the attorney general, deputy attorney general of Louisiana, and I've often wondered what happened to those folks. I wanted to go back and talk to some of the folks and see how it worked out.

HH: But at least at that time, they bought that plan.

WM: Yeah.

HH: Incidentally, what happened to that young man that you tried to defend in Mississippi?

WM: Oh, he was found guilty, which is what we expected. And then I asked that my client be released on the same bond he was on at that point. The judge granted that request, and as I walked out the courtroom door though swinging doors, the sheriff was standing there. And the sheriff served him with another charge of not paying for goods, a debtors debt. And he led them away to a cell because he had no bond for that, he was being arrested on a new offense, and I thought, oh my god, what are they doing? I thought that possibly they were thinking I might win on this case, and I thought I might win, too, by the way, that I had just tried. And as this boy was being led away -- and when I say "boy," he's in his twenties -- as he was being led away, he said, "Please help me, please help me." And I felt so sorry about that, that I went to the clerk's office, court clerk's office, to see who had brought the charges. And I tracked the fellow down and he agreed to withdraw the charges. And so my man got free out of jail, and I know it sounds a little melodramatic, but I think as the years passed, things take on a different hue. And I remember seeing him running through the dust, his coattails flying, and saying thanks, and I don't know whatever happened after that. But his charge on the burglary, that initial charge would have been reversed because subsequently, the Supreme Court of the United States says, "You may not exclude women from the jury." And under Mississippi law, it was an all-men jury. And I had filed an objection, lodged an objection to the fact that the jury voir dire was not open to women as well.

HH: This event, was that prior to or after the shooting of Medgar Evers?

WM: I forgot when he was shot, but I'll tell you what. There was a woman by the name of Violet.

HH: Yes, she was killed.

WM: From Michigan. I read that article in the paper and I thought, how tragic that in a country like our country, women can be shot down in cold blood. And there was a picture of her children, I remember, seating on the couch crying. And I felt that that was just terrible that something like that happened. The other thing that impelled me was Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail. Somebody gave that to me and I read it, and it really moved me. It was one of the finest pieces of articulation I've seen in the English language.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1994 JACL Philadelphia. All Rights Reserved.