The Honorable J. Richmond Pearson, one of Alabama’s legal giant’s, passed today, October 23, 2014.
Judge J. Richmond Pearson was a native of Birmingham, Alabama. He was born the youngest of seven children to William U. Pearson, Sr., a railroad dining car waiter and Ruth J. Pearson, an Atlanta University graduate and former classroom teacher.
He attended Birmingham public schools, graduating from A. H Parker High School. In furthering his education, he obtained his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and his law degree from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
At a time when Jim Crow segregation permeated every aspect of life in the Deep South, he never wavered in his determination to return to his birthplace upon completing law school to fight injustice and racism. After passing the Alabama Bar examination in 1958, he opened his law office across from historic Kelly Ingram Park, the site where peaceful demonstrators would be attacked by vicious police dogs and pummeled by water hoses.
A contemporary and classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he represented his fellow Morehouse alum and other jailed civil rights protestors. He also was involved in landmark civil rights litigation that successfully challenged unlawful discrimination in public accommodations, employment practices and etc.
Judge Pearson became the first black assistant United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1967 upon appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1974, he became one of two black senators elected to the Alabama Senate post -Reconstruction. Known for his brilliant legal mind and quick thinking, he distinguished himself by mastering the rules of the Senate and perfecting the art of the filibuster. He authored legislation to remove the two state historically black public colleges, Alabama A&M and Alabama State from under the direct control of the state superintendent and placing them on the same level as other state institutions of higher learning with separate trustee boards.
In 1978, former Lt. Governor George McMillian, Jr. appointed Senator Pearson as chair of the powerful senate Finance & Taxation Committee. This appointment garnered national attention for the first black to control the purse strings of the entire state of Alabama.
Throughout his career Judge Pearson subscribed to the philosophy of elevating others as he climbed the ladder of success. He appointed Dr. Bester D. Bonner to the Alabama Ethics Commission, where she served as the first black and first female chair. He appointed Dr. Velma Blackwell as the first woman and first black to chair the Alabama Personnel Board. He secured state funding for Pearson Hall, a substance abuse residential treatment facility in Birmingham, as well as funding for the Bill Harris Arena at Fair Park in Birmingham.
In 1984, Governor George Wallace appointed Senator Pearson to the bench as a circuit judge in the criminal division. As the first black judge in the Birmingham Division of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, Judge Pearson earned the reputation as a fair, knowledgeable jurist capable of dispensing “no nonsense” justice tempered with mercy and compassion. In 1999, he retired from the bench after a fifteen-year tenure.
In 2008, Judge Pearson was inducted into the city of Birmingham’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens. He has received numerous awards and citations.
The moniker “Icewater” that he acquired during his college days for remaining cool under pressure served him well throughout a career of challenges and confrontations as the first black in various arenas. He never forgot his roots and his commitment to improve the lives of others regardless of race, creed or color.
In May 2013, he was among a select group of legal pioneers honored for their work with the Civil Rights Movement at the “Journey For Justice Gala” sponsored by the Birmingham Bar Foundation, Magic City Bar Association and the Birmingham Bar Association.
Judge Pearson was married to Dr. Juliet Nunn Pearson, who passed in 1983, and is the father of two daughters, Attorney J. Richet Pearson and Julene R. Pearson, M.D. He was a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
In May 2014, the Honorable J. Richmond Pearson was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers Association Hall of Fame.