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Interview with: Asberry Butler
Archive Number: OH 015
I: This is an interview with Mr. Asberry Butler, a former member of the school board and a black attorney in the city of Houston. Mr. Butler, can you give us some general information about your (__??), elementary school days, family, etc.?
AB: I was living in Houston (__??).
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I went to elementary school up until the fifth grade at Aston—Aston Elementary School. My—when I went to sixth grade, my family moved to California and I finished elementary school at Washington Irving Elementary in San Francisco. I went to Francisco Junior High School—went there for about a year and a half then we came back to Texas. I went to Wheatley junior school year in high school and I finished Wheatley Senior High School in 1950. And my family, my mother’s family is from Galveston, Texas and my father’s family—my father came here when he was 18 years old. He and my mother met when they were living in the general area called Harrisburg. He came to Houston from (__??).
I: Okay, I think you attended San Francisco State, completing law school at Texas Southern University?
AB: Right. I attended San Francisco State and University of Cal. I finished at San Francisco State, and I went to the University of Texas Law School. I finished and I got my J.D. degree from Texas Southern and I did post-graduate studying law at George Washington University in Washington D.C. I completed most of my requirements for a master’s in labor law, which was subject to writing a thesis in one course—
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AB: — and I haven’t been able to get to Washington to complete it.
I: You have a—you are married and have how many children?
AB: I have, now, four children. We had five. One died in a car wreck about 2 years ago.
I: Now, what was all of you political experience prior to running for the school board in 1965?
AB: I had very little political experience or aspiration. As a matter of fact, I felt—when I was in college—I felt it was silly for people to run for student body president. I thought it was a waste of time. I had no experience. I had no aspiration until I got to Houston—I came back to Houston after travelling several places in the United States—the southwest United States. I got back to Houston and I associated myself with Barbara Jordan, and we had a fun—Barbara had just come back from Birm—from Tuskegee, Alabama where she had taught, and I had just gotten in from Philadelphia where I had been working in—
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I: Can you tell us what led you to run in the school race—specifically of 1965—what were your motivations.
AB: It was ’54. They changed the law after I got elected. They changed the law so that elections would come in odd years instead of even years. But prior to my election year was an even year—November ’64. I had announced in ’62 against—no against Mrs. White, but for the same position. I had been a political novice, so I didn’t know what position she was running for and I got a lot of criticism from the community to for even announcing. I quickly withdrew from the race when I found out she was running for that position. I think, if anything, to aspire politically it was Barbara, because I was associated with her. I had never had any political—political—(inaudible)—and I got with Barbara, helping her with her campaign running for state legislator. I think that was more or less the catalyst that got me interested—got me started in politics.
I: Once you were started on a course of action toward obtaining a seat on the school board, where there particular reforms or things you advocated in your campaign that you hoped to—?
AB: Yes, I was the first one to make a motion to use scholastic—athletic competition. And I remember so well, when I made that motion—
AB: And he made a joke of it. But I think many things that we take as passe now where sort of started and implemented later. The first problem is I didn’t—an enemy or (inaudible). At the time when it was politically dangerous to take certain stands. I certainly said that Mrs. White was in the first one and I was in the second. Matter of fact, that was my feeling when I went to the school board—let somebody second Mrs. White’s motion.
I: What factors would you say contributed to your victory in the election of ’65? Were there any particular things that you thought had really put you over?
AB: Well, they say politics is a game in which you need to conquer. Ain’t nobody had ever won a—
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AB: —a county-wide race. I just figured that I couldn’t win and I had to think of some way of winning rather than the regular race I wanted. So my political strategy was to try to work in the black community—saturate the black the community and be as less visible as possible in the white community when there was another Butler running. There were two Butlers as you probably know. Mr. Joe Kelly Butler, who had been on the board for some time before me, and I think at that time he was—was to be president of the board—a very strong figure. I chose purposely not to run against him, but to run for another position and I had to—I didn’t know whether or not—you might say this is (inaudible), but I’m going to be honest and say I had slate cards made. I had one slate card with my picture and it was saying, “Let’s elect someone to second Mrs. White’s motion” Definitely showing my blackness. Vote for Asberry Butler position four. That slate card was circulated through just about exclusively in the black community. I had another slate card strictly saying, “Elect Butler, position four.” And this was circulated in the white community. Certain people told me that it wouldn’t work. I said, “I think it would.” They said, “No, you can’t fool people like that.” I said, “Well, that’s the only way I’ll get elected.” I was given invitations to come out to white communities—exclusive white areas and I would say yes and never show up. I heard of a (inaudible) on KXYZ radio. That’s the station—one of the most popular white radio stations in the state.
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AB: 09:00.7 —both conservative. So I went to the station and asked them, “Could I get an announcement right behind that?” And I did with a white voice. Right behind their announcement was Walker Butler the conservative saying, “Vote conservative.” Right behind that one, a good strong Anglo voice came along and said, “Vote for Asberry Butler for position four.” And I do believe that sort of helped a little bit. And (inaudible) to put the cream to the pile—right behind that was a very melodious voice with patriotic music behind it was a man named ___(Doss Berry??). Vote for __(Doss Berry??). And I think they got ___(Lasberry??) mixed up with Asberry and they got Butler mixed up with the conservative slate. And I believe that this really created a lot of anger in the white community and they have never forgotten me yet for sort of deceiving the community. They said I deceived them, but I said I used good, strong politics. Special politics that blacks need to use to utilize what he can use to win. Last I was elected, Grover—Henry Grover was state legislator. He was working the school board there. We wrote him. We told him to push a bill. The bill was, in effect—
AB: 10:26.8 The Golden Bill went through and it changed the number of years from—(unintelligible)—my tenure been from January ’65 to January ’69—it was January ’70. And the last year I didn’t serve. After I served my 3 years, I was so happy that—and I had to stick it out. A lot of people thought I resigned, but I maintain that I was—I used the years—I spent the time that I was elected to. That was January ’69. It was very tough.
I: Did you receive a great deal of opposition for the various programs that you considered while on the board—the issues of the scholastic program, variation of text book?
AB: Oh, gee. I’m told—the school board met—I want to say Wheatley—after I was elected. I was sent ahead to Texas State Hotel with the District Attorney’s Office. And they said, “There must be some kind of way to get this nigger off this board, because he don’t deserve to be there. He fooled a lot of people and the people got confused as to the Butlers. And he’s a smart-aleck and we can see the way he’s talking.” And we got with the D.A.’s office and we—
AB: —political giants, more or less concentrated on four large law firms. The law firm controlled, politically, almost the whole town. For example, Vinson and Elkins law firm just about had controlled as to who would go in the county office. And they had control as to who would be prosecuted and who would not be prosecuted. Reward the friends and punish the enemies. And I think it was a very sad thing and I knew that some of the law firms had a lot to do with my political problems I had when I was on the board. I had so much—so many problems. To say that I had no opposition would be just—it just wouldn’t add anything to what I really had suffered while I was on the board.
I: During the time that you were on the board, were you ever threatened or publicly criticized by the opposition?
AB: I was threatened so many times, until my wife begged me to leave town almost the first year I was in school. Not only was I threatened, a bomb was set off in front of my house. I reported it, but it was stated that it would be best to keep it quiet because some kook would try it again. They threw a rock at my window and broke the window pane by my last year on the board. Not only did they throw rocks at my house, but they threw rocks at my neighbor’s house because they were confused as to where I lived. The neighbors got mad at me for even living in the community. It was very frustrating.
I2: 13:59.1 Do you have any ideas who did—who broke—?
AB: I have ideas, but it’s—there was an article in __(??), an editorial about 4-5 pages low—Asberry Butler, the Legal Lynching. It’s dated September 9, 1967. My very good friend, the late Julius Carter wrote it. He spent a whole 2 weeks writing it. And he, in this article, just about told the whole story about all the political opposition I had and all the meetings that were taking place at—clandestine meetings with high officials and high—you know how much— He said—Julius Carter said he had heard that over $250,000.00 was spent to get rid of me off the school board. Because they sent investigators to every place I lived—San Francisco. I was married to a Puerto Rican girl down in Puerto Rico for a very brief period of time. They went all the way down there. And they tried to get me for perjury—I mean—for bigamy. They claimed that I raped a 14-year-old girl that I had never seen before. (unintelligible)—I got a letter—I had a tape recording. She came in and she admitted that she had taken $500.00. They went to the grand jury to try to indict me several times for bigamy, but they were so stupid they didn’t believe my ex-wife, who didn’t know that—she had put in for a divorce and she thought I had dropped it. And I did drop it, but I made her file another one. She didn’t know. She claims that I was still living a bigamist life—got married again. And they relieved her and they went to the grand jury and tried to indict me. Moore—Mr. Moore from the Houston Post—I’m trying to think of his first name—was very instrumental in finding out about all that.
I: Do you feel that the fact that you were the first black man perhaps affected the attitudes of many of the conservatives in the city in response to the fact that Ms. White had not received as much legal persecution?
AB: I think that the job of being a lawyer is a very vulnerable job in and of itself. Every day the very nature of your law practice leaves a person very vulnerable. Mrs. White was a housewife. If I represent, for example, a robber he can allege that—if I’m not careful—that the money that he paid me was part of the proceeds from other robbery. If I represent a person in a bankruptcy case, they can claim ignorance and say that their lawyer told them to do it when they make a false statement in the bankruptcy petition. And I believe that I was—I know it was radical and hot-headed—I say I’m not as hot-headed as I was when I first got on the board. I came on the board thinking I was just going to change the city over night and I ran into all kind of opposition. I called Dr. McFarlane on television and radio “a big liar.” And I never thought liar was such a nasty word, but they had editorials in the newspaper about me using trashy language on TV and used that as a ground to try to get the—that the school board meetings off the TV.
I: 17:51.8 That was the next question that I was coming to. What was your position on the issue of the discontinuance of TV program school board meetings?
AB: I was very, very adamant about keeping it, because it was our only weapon. Only thing that Mrs. White and I could do was to vocalize and show some of the weakness and some of the impracticality of some of the policies of the conservative board. We best did this by having it viewed on television. And later, Mrs. White was defeated and I was there by my own—by myself for two years. As you know, she was defeated and Mr. Ed Franklin took her place. And during my last two years on the board, I was the only black, and it was even worse. And I knew how Mrs. White felt when she was the only black on the board. Course, I had the help of a Jewish liberal, Mrs. Barnstone, but it was a tormenting experience.
I: Do you—how would you react to a revitalizing of the TV shows of the school board now in the ‘70s?
AB: I think that—especially since the so-called progressive—the progressive of the school board is in the minority. I would be greatly in favor of TV being renewed. TV being—viewing of the school board meeting on TV being renewed, I think that it would more or less be—I think that when you get a majority it’s very dangerous and you need a vocal minority to visualize and to editorialize some of the weaknesses of the majority’s policies on the board. And I believe that this can best be done by having a television viewing of the meetings and broadcast the meetings of the—school board meetings.
I: In 1966 there was a search for a new school superintendant. What type of input did you have or reaction did you have to this?
AB: To be very frank, we were in the minority then. That was the year I think Mrs. White wasn’t on that board. I was there by myself. I was the only black. Mrs. Barnstone and I were—we couldn’t even get—call a minority meeting—you know—if you get 3 people to sign a petition, you could have what is called a minority meeting. We just couldn’t get that third person after Mrs. White was defeated. We gave very little input on the search. We vocalized our—and we were completely laughed at by the conservatives. I think the day has passed when we got the type of person—persons that we had on the board at that time. The so-called conservative now are not quite as __(??) as they were at the time we were on the board—Mrs. White, Mrs. Barnstone, and I were on the board. It was a completely type of people. They were very cunning and conniving, anxious to really get you off the board, and I, after being prosecuted and persecuted so long, I did a little persecuting myself. I found out that Joe Kelly Butler had placed money in East State Bank. And I made a motion that it be explored. And he was so nasty. He made all kinds of nasty remarks about me and he also made a motion that the school board attorney investigate my charges and report back right away whether they were wrong or whether they were right. And he definitely wanted a report back. Needless to say that the school board attorney didn’t report back, and also needless to say that Mr. Joe Kelly Butler resigned about 4 months later. Very few people knew that. But that was the reason—I believe that was the reason—one of the main reasons for his resignation.
I: 22:23.0 Who was the school board attorney that you referred to?
AB: Joe Reynolds, he same one as the school board attorney for the North Forest school board.
I2: During the time that Joe Butler Kelly served on the school board, do you recall any new land being given to the school board for the construction of schools?
AB: I have no recollection of any free land being given.
I2: No donations or any—?
AB: No, no.
I: Were you aware of any graft or corruption during the time—you mentioned the previous month—were there any other examples?
AB: Yes, I do, but it was so hard to document that I was afraid to come out with a statement considering—you know—perjury might—I definitely, in my mind, knew that there was some graft going on as far as seeing school teacher’s insurance. I don’t want to say who the individual was, but there was a lot of that going on. And also some of the bonds. One of the school board members—conservative school board members in 1966 went to the grand jury, and they were about to indict him concerning—but the same person is here in Houston begging for other people to go before a grand jury. (laughs) There was a lot. I just couldn’t document it. It was too hard to prove. You just couldn’t holler wolf. And it irks you when you know it’s going on and you can’t do anything about it.
I: The insurance person involved in insurance—was that Mrs. McGregor?
AB: No, it was a school board member.
I: 24:16.1 Some of the issues that came up during the time that you were on the school board, and I think that you have had some input—what was your reaction to federal aid during this particular time?
AB: I voted almost 100 percent for federal aid. I can say 100 percent. It was also just one of those things that was just very frustrating because we couldn’t get enough votes. Matter of fact, we had a very—when—if, for example, I was there and I made a motion about federal aid and the other two—Mrs. White and Mrs. Barnstone—wasn’t there, it was never seconded. And we just couldn’t get any—we did get somewhere. We made it so embarrassing—I think Mrs. Barnstone almost single-handedly done a lot of research. We had a research of grain bank meetings. We had banks that helped the 3 of us and we came up with a lot of research, data, and statistics that just bombasted them, and they finally gave in. We did get—the ___(??) did get the majority in favor of the—of some federal aid.
I: Were there any particular groups or persons who—you know— helped you with the grain bank you care to mention?
AB: Yes, there were—the limousine liberal group was more or less on the scene, out of Rice—professors, a couple of white lawyers, black economists—the same crew as, more or less, the ACLU group-type.
I: What about your stand on busing during this time? (unintelligible)
AB: Well—you see—busing had a different connotation the time that I was on the board and present. At that time, the conservative was more or less fishing for busing, because busing meant to them busing past integrated schools to segregated schools. For example, McReynold Junior High School, they would bus blacks from that area of (__??)—the two blacks that was over there—they would take them to E.O. Smith. So we found ourselves against busing at that time for the reason—because busing had a different connotation and denotation. It met perpetuation of segregation, not implementation of integration.
I: What was your position on the lawsuit that occurred on that issue—(__??) versus the Independent School District? It had to do with the location of new schools.
AB: Oh, that was very interesting. We had some brain-trust and think-tank meetings and we definitely—for the move to creating no new schools, because the purpose was to try to put more black schools in black communities and to perpetuate segregation. We were also against the building of the new school board building. And it’s very strange that the one that said—Mrs. White and I’s name on the cornerstone—and the people that wanted to use it—(laughs)—there was people who used it. Because, see, I think the first occupants—it was the new school board—liberal school board members were the first occupants of the building. But we showed the perpetuation of segregation to build new buildings of students all over the community, especially in the black community. They were building schools all over town in the black community. The real reason—the manifest reason for doing that was to perpetuate segregation.
I: 28:39.4 How would you react to reports that you—did the school board attempt to impede the federal government order of 1954?
AB: Every way they could they tried to impede the federal governmen’ts order of 1954. Through payments of huge sums of attorney fees, which we questioned, needless litigation. I had clashes with the school board attorneys many times on some of the bills that they were submitting to the board. Bills that were just useless—for services that were useless. The main reason why they were doing that was to try to continue in any way possible without—with a (___??) here and there towards integration. Their main purpose in the school here was to try to perpetuate segregation and to impede the order of 1954.
I: How would you react to today having the school district being represented by a, say, multi-ethnic—you know—law firm or group?
AB: It would be beautiful. When I was on the board I kept pounding for that. I kept suggesting Chicano law firms, black law firms, interracial law firms, and they never did seem to hear. Anytime we were sued Mr. McCall said, “Why don’t we get a Chinaman law firm?” (laughs) He made that statement one time at a board meeting. I think Mr. Bell was kind of sick. “Why do we keep talking about a Chicano and a black law firm, an interracial law firm? All we want to do is get—we getting good legal services. Next thing you want to do is try to get a Chinaman law firm. You want to get a Chinaman law firm Mr. Butler?” This was typical of the mentality of the people that were on the board at that time.
I: Can you react to the break-up of the Bracewell Firm and the Reynold’s Firm? Was there any—?
AB: I think there it was just a question that one chicken was getting too big for the coop. And I think that they both were of the same stroke. I think that was one of the saddest things—that the so-called liberal school board could have done. Was to hire Patterson— Harry Patterson. Harry Patterson has always been—you know—as far as I’m concerned, he was acting as the patsy as the school board—negro’s representative. He had always perpetuated segregation. I think it was because he was a good friend of Mrs.—I’m trying to think of a school board member’s name.
AB: 32:00.3 No. A liberal. A liberal lady that was the president at one time.
AB: No, I’m talking about the one that just went out.
I: Oh, Tinsley
AB: Mrs. Tinsley, yeah. Her husband and Harry Patterson went to school together and there was a close relationship—there was a personal relationship between Mrs. Tinsley and her husband and Harry Patterson. And one of the concessions that had to be made for Mrs.Tinsley, in order to get some of these conservatives supportive, Harry Patterson was going to get the liberals to hire the Harry Patterson law firm as a school board representative—legal representative. So I thought that was about the biggest mistake they had made. Of course they done a lot of good things, and I guess they were entitled to be human and make a few mistakes. And I think that was one of them.
I: What were some of the good things that you considered the school board did during that time?
AB: Well, they perpetuated what we had started, as far as integration. They—personnel-wise they expanded the blacks—the number of blacks in responsible positions. Like nobody’s business, I left town and I came back into the school board office and I thought I was in another town when I came back. I was extremely, pleasantly surprised to see so many minorities in high position. And I think that the school board—the so-called liberal school board—(Oser??) and his regime did a beautiful job in that respect. I can list an endless number of things good that they’ve done. I would just happen—I just happened to mention one of the bad things that they’ve done. They’ve done tremendous good.
I: What about the program of evaluating the (American??) textbooks? I think you were involved?
AB: Yes, this is where we got into American—Daughters of the American Revolution and all these quacks. They thought that everything that was in the book—if you said anything like, “My brother’s black.” You showed something like a black boy walking with a white boy to school, they’d just shred it. And I thought it was really terrible. And they—they fought the idea about black history in the textbook. Ever since, Davis and I met several times my last year on the school board, and he was instrumental and making a lot of noise. The school board was sort of shaken a little bit, and I think there has been some concessions—very minor concessions. We did get—you know—a black boy walking down the street next to a little white girl about 2 or 3 years old. And people didn’t think it was so horrible—that he might rape her.
I: 35:08.3 What about the vocational programs in school during your tenure?
AB: Very poor, and that was another good thing that the (Oser??) crew did that really, really made me feel good, because many of the things I wanted to do when I was on the school board that made me so frustrated—being—the motions that I made were later—did later come about through Mr. (Oser??) and his (___??).
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AB: They expanded (___??) High School of the Performing Arts is a tremendous thing. I have—I hope that my daughter is fortunate enough to go there. It’s something that when I went to Washington D.C. people started asking me about it. They asked me about the High School of Performing Arts that you have in Houston. They wanted to know whether I had anything to do with it, and I was modest. I said, “No.” (laughs)
I: What was your position on filling your vacancy on the school board when you left in ’69?
AB: I had (__??). I made a suggestion, which was just thrown out the window. Maybe my suggestion would have been heeded if I hadn’t made it, but they everything planned. I was weather-beaten. I was tired. I was broke. I was flat broke. My practice had gone down to zero. Even church had offered to collect some groceries for my family, and I just couldn’t get going again this time. I had to leave. I had to leave because I was—I had been busted financially. So, when I was left, I left with a lot of things undone. I really wanted to spend the last year on the board—the year that was added because of the global amendment I would have completed, but I just don’t think I would have lasted a year.
I: Did you make any recommendations as to who you would have liked to have filled your vacancy?
AB: Yes, I did.
I: Who in particular, or did you have a—you know—keep a group in mind?
AB: I had suggestions. They would take the suggestion of Harris County Council Organization. After I left, the Harris County Council Organization designated my successor.
I: 37:48.7 How did you find the community’s responses to you programs—in the black and the white community?
AB: Very responsive. Especially the limousine liberal white group that we met with—
AB: They were very responsive. They gave me all of the encouragement that I liked when I got—at the board meeting, I was very encouraged.
I: What do you feel were your most significant contributions while on the board?
AB: There were several things that I think—I think the most significant contributions I made was getting Joe Kelly Butler off the board. (laughs) And the second thing that I done that I thought was significant was the motion that I made to integrate interscholastic high school competition, which was passed. I was amazed. I just couldn’t believe it passed after about the fifth try.
I: Since 1960, it appears that running as an Independent is extremely difficult and candidates usually seek the backing of the group. How do you feel about this? Do you think you can run as an Independent now as you did in the early ‘60s?
AB: I think my running was just one of those things that happen once in a generation. I could never run—matter of fact, I couldn’t do anything. Everybody knows me in this town. I’m very notorious. I couldn’t run at anything and hide. For example, I ran for the office of Justice of the Peace. As soon as I found—my wife told me that if I won, she was going to leave. And she told me to get out of the race. I couldn’t get out of the race. It was too late to get out of the race. I didn’t do any campaigning at all. I didn’t even put up a sign, and I got 2500 votes, which was higher than the third candidate who had spent $8000.00 on the race—Arthur Jackson. I was so afraid the next morning after the election that I would be embarrassed with 40 votes. I no more than picked up the paper and I found out I had 2500 votes without making one endorsement, one speech. I didn’t spend any money. Just put my name on the ballot and I got 2500 votes. And I said if I had campaigned a little bit I might have lost a wife .
I: Would you care to—I think you commented on various members of the board who were along. Could you just give us sort of a capsule impression of—your impression of Mrs. Charles White?
AB: 40:38.7 I think Mrs. White was a very dedicated school board member—a lot of drive, a lot of energy. Sometime my tax was lacking and sometime she might have killed some of the chances she would have had if she had not been so dedicated. I think that the town used to owe her something and they should have given her some kind of appreciation dinner. I know she got tired of all those corsages. She got corsages after corsages and nobody ever done anything for Mrs. White. I think that—you know—that she was such a monumental figure in our political structure, and, again, the very first black on the board. I know how hard it was because I was the second. That something should be done more material to—as you know, she had certain problems and nobody seemed to remember her. And I think that she had –it was Mrs. White agitating that caused us to give meaning to the things that we have right now. It was her agitating that caused me to do a little agitating. I mean—I caught the fever. Everybody—matter of fact, some of the conservatives of Northside said I still mirror Mrs. White.
I: Mr. Joe Kelly Butler, I think you’ve responded to.
AB: A very selfish, very, very vindictive, very angry man. A man with an attitude that, “I don’t give a damn.” A man who would cut you down at a minutes notice, and, in my opinion, had very little respect for the black community. He likes a black Uncle Tom. He loved those. He always sought out the black Uncle Tom. He got quite a few of them—you know.
I: Any in particular you’d care to admit?
AB: One very big one that’s on the board now, and I won’t call his name.
I: Mr. Bob Eckels?
AB: Mr. Bob Eckels is a man that was behind all my persecution. He—Mr. Bob Eckels was a political animal—a capitalist, an opportunist. He did everything in the world possible to promote Bob Eckels. At one time, Mr. Eckels seemed as though he was fair. He was about the fairest of the rest that was there, and yet he was the most conniving of them all, because he was very slick. He had a lot of brains. He has a lot of brains and intellect. And when you get a bigot that’s intellectual—(unintelligible)—and he’s dangerous, more dangerous than what they knew of. I think Mr. Eckels is about the most dangerous one on the board. He would pat you on the back and stick you with a knife. He could smile you in the face and then cut you down in the board meeting and get out and shake your hand. Sometime or one of us said—
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I: Mrs. Barnstone?
AB: Mrs. Barnstone was a person who was, in fact, just the opposite of Mrs. White—very resourceful. She was, more or less, a person that would come in with all kinds of figures and all kinds of research. It seems though she just—she had a (__??) of energy. I don’t know where she got it all, but she did a lot of research, not only for the benefit of the liberal faction, but also the conservative faction. And she was a very dedicated person on the board.
I: I think the other person was McCullough?
AB: Mr. McCullough, I think, was about the most ignorant of the conservatives on the board. He didn’t really know what he was doing. He got his clues from Joe Kelly Butler. He’d put up one thing or two things. He sort of followed. He wasn’t a—if someone topped him on the conservative board—she was really—that was Mrs. Cullen. Mrs. Cullen didn’t know—
[Interruption in tape 45:28.7]
I2: You’re on the air.
I: You are on. I’ll start with saying—you were responding to Mrs. Cullen.
AB: Yes, Mrs. Cullen, I think, would have best served her community if she stayed in her florist shop and made flowers. I don’t know how she got on the board except I understand she had a wealthy benefactor whose money was needed in the conservative camp. That was distributed by Mrs. Cullen. She was—she grunted most of the time instead of enunciating.
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AB: She was completely ignorant as to what was going on and she couldn’t hardly make a motion. She was very nasty. She—I think she spoke to me about two times when I was on the board. She was the only member on the board that really wouldn’t even speak.
I: To the—to whom did she not speak?
AB: To me, I imagine. That’s why I said she done the same thing to her. But we would go up to these school board meetings—you know—people from everywhere, even people from Mississippi were speaking and hollerin’ and throwing their arms around behind a good whiskey. Mrs. Cullen would be given a good whiskey and she still wouldn’t speak to you. She was extremely prejudiced. It showed—you know—it was voracious. She was about the tops as far as the racists on the board. She hated blacks and she expressed it at a school board meeting. One of the school board members from another town had told me about how she had said—groused about racial hatred.
I: Just a few other questions on the school board, Mr. Butler. What was your position on teacher representation at (__??).
AB: 47:32.7 I always have been a proponent of fair representation. I thought that lack of any lawyer—
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AB: I thought that the majority would dictate as to who the representative of the school teachers would be, and I’ve always been of this opinion. I’ve always expressed this.
I2: This might be a good place to turn it over.
I: Okay. I want to ask you—
[Break in tape 48:09.0]
I: Okay. Today, how would you respond to having a black seat, a Mexican American seat, etc.—you know—on the school board—you know—that they must be there? There were several that have spoken to the fact that they would support such—that there would always be—you know—
AB: I would think that the representation of the population in the city of Houston would warrant such. And I would be strongly in favor of having seats for black and Chicano on the school board.
I: Are there any other areas on the school board you would like to comment on that we have not covered?
AB: I can’t think of any right off-hand.
I: Okay, now we would like to settle into the area of your legal career as a black attorney in the city of Houston. Can you sort of briefly tell us about your establishment of your first practice here in the city?
AB: Well, I came back to Houston after working with (__??) in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. with the idea of establishing a practice that would be sort of different. I had gotten experience in—
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AB: 50:07.0 It was in a special field. I came back with the thought that I had time to go into (__??) law, tax law, labor law, and—
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AB: —wasn’t so generous of black lawyers at that time, so I came back here and started practicing the good old, everyday, better, and type of law practice that we lawyers are practicing today—black and white, but mostly black. That is, cases in (__??) cases, automobile wreck, drawing up a will, a divorce, everyday butter-and-bread-type of practice. Now, we, in the white community, have gotten a (__??) in the black community in black practice. We done improved their bonding. For many years blacks haven’t been able to make bail bond because they haven’t had the capital and the collaterals. But there have emerged many black lawyers and black bail bondsmen in the past 5 or 6 years that has been a threat on the so-called “Big Three.” There are three big bail bonding companies in Houston that you would call all of their bail bondsmen and lawyers to make your bond. They passed a law last year that reduced the number of bondsmen in this town from 250 to 50. And they also tried to get rid of all bond by professional recognizance, as you probably already know. You probably read about it. We went to the county Commissioners office and complained about the recognizance-type of bond. And then they started getting all the lawyers, because they knew that probably lawyers wouldn’t have copies, or anyone else. But when it got to legislature last year, they knew that they couldn’t do it because there were too many—there were too many lawyers in the (__??). So what they do is they had a compromise, which provided that lawyers could make bond if they made bond for their own clients. And, to a certain extent, that limits the number of bonds that lawyers can make. You’ve probably read in the paper that there’s a poll going on right now about bail bonding, and I think the real reason behind that it is to cut off, not bail bondsmen, but lawyers. See, because wherever you find a bail bond company, you’re going to find full-size lawyers that get fat off the bonding company. And the lawyers monopolize, not only the bonding, but the law practice in Houston. And that we’ll find now that the—you know—the bright lawyers--(inaudible)—just illuminating all that the three big bail bonding companies, who has their own special lawyers that those cases are referred to. And although this is supposed to be done, it isn’t being done. Now, black lawyers are emerging in other areas. I have found that there are about two blacks working on the National Labor Relations Board. And there are blacks that—when you have any black firm—notice then that we had one that broke up just recently. And we’re trying to—that’s why I bought this house and I’m converting it to an office. I’ve got some space upstairs. I want to get a law firm, because I think this is what’s really needed.
I: 53:43.2 Do—how would you describe the response and the attitudes of the white legal community to the black lawyer—legal community in Houston in the early ‘60s? What was going on?
AB: They’ll return. They will come to a black race and pat black lawyers on the back and say, “Oh, man, you’re a good ol’ boy.” And they will guarantee to get the black clients in office. And if they said—you know—they went to Asberry Butler’s. “We don’t know Asberry Butler. That black lawyer? He can’t do anything for you. You better get you a white lawyer.” And this whittled us down. They undermined black people in this community, in Houston, and all over the south United States.
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AB: —you come into a courtroom and you see a black juror’s there and the client would look around and they’d say, “I didn’t know that they had black jurors.” They would, more or less, come to the black lawyers. And I think things are improving. The same thing with the Chicanos—at one time we didn’t have any Chicano judges, now we have several. You know—Judge Abraham Ramirez, and there are several in the city. We have two or three down at the county.
I: Does the fact that you say it is good that you have the black judges now, the Chicano judges—because of the fact that earlier when we had white judges who were not fairly treated—are saying this, or something else?
AB: I’m saying something else. I think the fact that a jury—even if the jury’s (inaudible). For example, there is a judge in Harris County by the name of (Seal??)—I don’t think I have to hide it because everybody knows that he’s prejudice. But I’ve never seen him so fair when it comes down to close decisions—when it comes down to black or white. He knows he’s prejudice and he goes overboard and was (inaudible) in favor of the black lawyers. I heard him one time, when I first started practicing, say, “I award the case to the nigger.” And I don’t believe that that was more or less it—then was the—that included black clients as to what they thought the psychological thing—what they thought was a disadvantage to them. Their mind was closed. They didn’t believe that if you had the law on your side and if you knew a lot and you researched a lot, juries have to follow. They just didn’t believe that. Now, if there is any prejudice in jury—because I can go down to the P.A.’s office right now and get a better fee than any white lawyer in town. I had my cousin not so long ago, who had asked me to represent her husband in a driving-while-intoxicated case. I had worked the fee out, and he got frightened and said, “I’m going to get a white lawyer.” And I had charged him $200.00. He went to the white lawyer and the white lawyer charged him $800.00 and he got the same recommendation that I had—(laughs)—a $100.00 fine. But he was just so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do what the white lawyer did that he paid him $600.00 more and he got the same fine that he would have gotten if he had gotten me. I used the line—I don’t believe that the judges are prejudice.
I: 57:44.5 What about—can you respond to your relationship experience with Judge Duncan?
AB: That might be an exception.
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AB: So he called me up and asked me what I could do. I said the only person that could say that she doesn’t have to come back and she just pay the fine without having to appear in person would be Judge Duncan. So he called Judge Duncan. I was right in his chamber office—right outside. The door was wide open. His clerk came in and said, “Somebody from New Hampshire—a Supreme Court Justice says his daughter is in your court.” And I heard the conversation. “Yeah.” “Do you know that this daughter that your daughter has is a nigger?” And the judge came out and he knew that I had heard the magic word. And it seems from that instance that he would treat me extra good because he didn’t want me to expose it. He prefers to be fair, and he’s mean to everybody. He is mean. And I think that the fact that the whole Bar Association voted against him is an indication of—you know—his rudeness, his temperament, and his impropriety as a judge. I don’t think it’s just blacks. But it seems though, when he’s mean, he’s meaner to the blacks then he is to the whites.
I: Another question is, can you give any reasons for the increase being noted of black attorneys in the Houston area?
AB: Well, I believe it’s maybe because of the number of students in Texas Southern now. When I went to Texas Southern University there were only 22, later, during the summer of ’54, and I was top of the class. (laughs) Now, you don’t see such things happening anymore. You know—they’ve got about 300 law students over there. And my cousin worked and really hustled to try to get into law school this semester. They’re turning people down. You know—everybody wants to go to law school now because they’ve found—they say lawyers make more money than people with PhDs and MDs. (inaudible) Many of these people say, “Well, why should I go back two years to get a master’s when I can go an extra year and be a lawyer?” So we have a lot going to law school now.
I: 1:00:44 Do you think this is good for young blacks in this community?
AB: Yes, because I don’t feel as though—I think we ought to concentrate on steering the black community to the use of black lawyers, because we only get 2 percent of the business anyway. And if a black lawyer comes out and he files a divorce against the husband, the husband’s going to need a lawyer too. So that increased the possibility of me getting the case.
I: What has effect has the increase of black attorneys in Houston had in Houston—you know—is there any effect? Have you seen any?
AB: Just recently, I don’t know if you read it in the paper. I was president of our Houston Lawyers Association—the black group—made some noise about the reason—
AB: We started slowing it down and the judges started treating us much better. We probably (inaudible) our chances about 80-100 strong and (inaudible) running for office you were going to have to deal with us. They’d come to our need to be interviewed because (inaudible) take our suggestion as to the judge. They delegated this responsibility to the black lawyers, and whoever we designated at the candidate that we support, the Harris County Council Organization would do so likewise. Usually the (___??). So we find—especially during election time—we find we get a lot of favors from the judges and really, really good response.
I: At one time you served as head of the (Home??) Development Legal Services here in Houston?
AB: 1:02:35.6 Yes.
I: Can you comment on the work done in this program?
AB: Yes, we done a lot of work in (__??) there. We done work—we started on a case that was never finished, and I hope one day to do so. I got a call from a fellow over there about a case (__??). That is a person of unfair representation—of unfair taxation of people in the run-down community. It was the Shaw case—Shaw versus—I’ve forgotten the defendants name. (inaudible)—about 2 or 3 years ago. In that case, they say that the citizen—the black citizen—would not have to spend tax money for the services they were not receiving. They sort of went on a tax strike. They refused to pay their tax and they won.
AB: —put a parking ticket on a man’s automobile and we challenged a parking ticket on grounds that—
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AB: They wouldn’t even wipe up the street. Why would they give us a parking ticket? We went to court on that. We went to court on a lot of cases in which all the other lawyers wouldn’t want to take because it was never a fee-producing-type of case. Nobody—a lawyer in private practice wouldn’t want to try to attack a traffic ticket or parking ticket in the Supreme Court of the United States. But we were attacking issues rather than (__??) problems.
I: Do you think that the legal services program should be continued in this city?
AB: Oh, definitely so. I really do. I think it’s needed. I referred a lot of cases to the legal services program, because many of the people just don’t have the money to—and it would take up too much of my time—you know—I’d have to sort of ration my time so that it would be fee producing and take care of the utilities. That’s—some people would have good cases, I just wouldn’t have time. If they didn’t have any money I would refer them to the legal service program and they worked beautifully. I think this is needed. They are really needed, because I did refer a lot of cases to the legal service program.
I: 1:05:00.5 Law enforcement has been in use in Houston for as long—I guess as long as we have had law enforcement. Can you make any comments on the issue of police brutality?
AB: I think it’s getting better, but it’s still bad. I think it will always be bad. As a lawyer, people come to me constantly about police brutality. And the saddest thing—you know—about law enforcement it the almost universal thought that police officers just don’t lie. I run into cases—I’m a typical example. (__??) they tried to put some heroin in my desk, and even though I’m a teetotaler—I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t indulge in anything. And to find heroin in my desk was—you know—just ridiculous. And the police officer came in about 40 minutes after some men had been fixing my air conditioners. And I went back and I told my secretary not to let him in there—he was sitting behind my desk. And about 30 minutes after he left, 4 narcotic officers come here and they all went directly to my desk and found some heroin. Well, I was lucky enough I took a polygraph test. And usually polygraph tests don’t work, but they worked that time and I was not charged. But the police officer, I believe, had a lot to do with that. And police officers do things like that. I started talking around, because some time you don’t get to sit—lawyers get tied up in the economic thing. They just don’t—really not sympathetic—and I’m guilty of that. And it gave me a little time to reflect. I have heard people say that if—you know—a police officer planted dope on him and I didn’t believe him. I said, “Well, he’s just saying that.” Idl put it down and if he wanted me to allege it I would, because he said it. “I don’t really believe that.” I just didn’t believe that. I just didn’t believe that anything like this could happen. (inaudible) I just couldn’t believe a police officer would do that until what happened to me. I got a personal experience. Then I began to talk to people in the community about police brutality. I began to empathize with them—sympathize with them. I talked to a well-known marijuana addict, and he told me, he said, “Asberry, you know, that everybody knows I smoke dope and I drive my big ol’ gangster care with the gangster lean tires and everybody knows I smoke dope. But one night these two black police officers stopped me and told me that they were going to search me. I said, ‘Well, put your hand in my pocket. I don’t need to be searched by any nigger officers.’ And that made them angry. They said, ‘Nigger, I’m going to fix you.’” He said they went straight to his car and pulled out a paper bag of marijuana. He said, “Now you know I wouldn’t be that stupid.” He said, “I mess with marijuana. I wouldn’t put it in no paper bag. I wouldn’t do it that way.” Then I started sympathizing with—
AB: 1:07:59 He probably did have some marijuana. And I started thinking. I said, “You know—(__??) might be, and probably is, telling the truth. Because (__??) wouldn’t have been dumb enough to have put that marijuana in his car like that.” I just really don’t believe it. So—you know—you wake up as a lawyer and you see these things going on. I hear people talking about how police officers beat them up and break into their door. I hear this constantly, and I get down to the police station and all I hear is the police officers talking about filing some aggravated assault charge on the men. And the men find themselves being charged with beating a police officer and then come home with hickies all over his face. It was ridiculous.
I2: Why would they plant narcotics on you? For what reason do you think they had behind it?
AB: A police officer told me that—after it was over—“Yeah, we treated you real nice Asberry. And we got the call—you know—we even gave you an opportunity to take a lie detector test and we didn’t think—if we didn’t want to really be fair.” And the police officer say, “We hear that somehow you were put back in jail on bond.” I believe it was one of my political enemies. I really don’t know. I think it’s going to be resolved though because I’ve been pushing the FBI. Went down to the FBI officers almost a whole day. I’ve talked to the U.S. Attorney and he said that he was going to do something about it. But I do want to get some indictments on whoever was responsible for planting this stuff in my desk because I want to be vindicated for it. You can so much in the newspaper and the only thing a person is going to remember is that Asberry Butler (inaudible) and dope. Thrown together, “Well, he must be a dope man.” And it’s hurting my practice right now. So I am anxious to find out—I really—I wish I had an answer.
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AB: I want to know who it was, why they did it. Only thing I know it just didn’t jump in my desk and I didn’t know anything about it.
I: 1:10:21 Who are you referring to political enemies? Who are you speaking of?
AB: Some of the same people that were on the school board. When I left town, they wanted to know why I could leave town and were watching. “Why is Asberry Butler leaving town when he’s convicted? Why could he leave town?” They had (inaudible) which was overturned. They—it’s the Big Fifty. Have you heard of the Big Fifty?
I: No, tell us something about this.
AB: The Big Fifty is sort of a loose group. It might be more than fifty, it might be less than fifty. It varies, but they got to be the Big Fifty, because one time there were fifty of them. Mainly people locally that are oriented in the conservative faction. And they’re supposed to be the keepers of the community. Whenever you get on their “S list” they keep you there. (inaudible) I had one lawyer tell me that the researcher had been discussing me at a meeting at a closed meeting at the Houston Club. “Why isn’t Asberry Butler back in town?” Did he ever lose his license? He didn’t? How in the world did he get away with that? And how is he practicing law? What can you do about stopping him now? You mean you can’t do anything about it? He can still practice?” Now that’s the guy—that’s the group I’m talking about—(inaudible). It’s a loose group—(?? White), Jesse Jones, and Albert (Colby??) and those guys—you know—those are supposedly the richest people in Houston. When you get money and hate together, it’s going to be hard to fight that and that’s what I’ve been fighting for 10 years.
I: What about the police recruitment of minorities? Do you have a reaction to this?
AB: A police—?
I: Recruitment of minorities for jobs—more black policemen, more Chicano, etc.
AB: I think it’s good because I’ve noticed, when I’ve been stopped by police officers—there’s a couple of black—I’ve gotten to know most—many of the police officers except the new ones. And there was one police officer—white police officer—that I knew that would really knock you across the head that was sort of—you know—kind of tame when he was with this black brother. (inaudible) because he didn’t have his inspection sticker—you know. He wanted to pull his gun. It seems as though he was sort of reluctant because he had this black call me mister. And I had known him before and he never called me mister before. So, for that reason and other reasons, I believe it’s good to have blacks and Chicano and minority police recruit teams. I don’t think it could be—of course, they could get as hateful as some of the whites, as you probably know, but, as a general rule, I think it would sort of cut down on the antagonism that you get from the police officers.
I: 1:13:24 What about black lawyers accessibility to their crimes in jail? Are there any problems there?
AB: No, I just left there and I felt my full (inaudible) when I was down there then. All you have to do is show your Bar card and write your name down and write the client’s name down and you can go in.
I: What about speedy trials for clients?
AB: Well, many of the cases are won on delays. And many lawyers, if they’re out on bond, don’t want a speedy trial as a tactic. I assume that you’re talking about those that remain incarcerated and are innocent and haven’t had an opportunity to go to court. The only thing you can do is file a motion for a speedy trial, which I’m doing. I feel as though—you know—that there should be speedy trials for instances like that—when the person is not on bond and there is a real question about his innocence. It doesn’t have to really be about questions of his innocence. He should have his day in court as rapidly as possible. And I feel as though—(inaudible) bonds myself—that that ability to make bond should not be a condition of getting out—you know—your case is pending.
I: What about person’s being incarcerated in jail and remaining there for 6 or 7 months without having a trial? Do you find much of this?
AB: Very—it’s the whole system. They have a system where they appoint lawyers. And they’ll appoint lawyers then they have what is called an arraignment docket and then there’d be—between the arraignment docket and the trial date it might be 3 months. (inaudible) Then he comes up and he thinks he’s going to have his day in court and they tell him this is just an arraignment so that you would know who your lawyer is and make it official. In my time, you didn’t make it official.
AB: They wouldn’t see a judge—just before the trial started. I think it’s terrible. It’s a weakness in the criminal justice system.
I: 1:15:54 Do you feel that a great many minorities are abused—that this happens to them more than Anglo?
AB: Well, the mere fact that the jail population is predominantly black (inaudible)—I think that that alone causes the black to suffer more misuse. But the fact that they’re poor also caused them to—
I: What improvements or criticisms do you have with regard to the legal community of Houston—white and black Houston Bar Association versus Houston Lawyers Association?
AB: I found, when I was (inaudible) in ’64-’65, I was the first one that was instrumental in getting the Houston Bar Association integrated, and I have never (inaudible). I went to the federal court and the federal court—I told the judge, “I want to get some (inaudible).” He said, “Well, you’re going to get your cases referred to the Houston Bar Referral Service.” I said, “Judge,” I said, “Do you know black lawyers not able to be members of the Houston Bar Association?” And he was ignorant to that fact. And I said, “Well, I think that the federal government ought to do something about this.” And I almost immediately—you know—they were trying to initiate the Legal Service Program. And the big law firms were the one that—
AB: They had to correct that. Almost overnight they had blacks come in the Houston Bar Association. But the main thing is the problem of the grievance committee, which is made up of members selected by the Texas Bar. And if you open a Texas Bar Journal, you find that it is almost totally—all the pictures in the Texas Bar Journal are totally white. You won’t see any blacks in there. They’re the ones that really—the lawyers and the grievances of lawyers—they’re the (inaudible) blacks to different positions—appoint blacks to the grievance committee. The grievance committee is just a political thing. For example, they were prosecuting black lawyers for (inaudible), soliciting cases. The Bar Association got angry—it got fighting, because they said, “You keep prosecuting whites.” They didn’t say anything about black lawyers. But they had about 10 or 15 white lawyers that were supposed to be indicted. They had typed up indictments and everything. And the Texas Bar Association interceded and they didn’t even come out with those. They said, “Let us clean our own house.” And they hadn’t done anything about it. But the only place they got any problems was the black lawyer, and the grievance committee was made up of mostly white lawyers. Every now and then you’d see a black lawyer on the grievance committee. They’re the ones that ditched the minorities. What usually happened is the law firm liked to get somebody on the grievance committee to protect their honor.
I: 1:19:18 Okay, what about the improvements—the criticisms—of judges in the city of Houston at this time?
AB: I think that to start off with we should get rid of Jim Duncan. He’s terrible and a poor example of a judge—has no temperament. He acts like the wild man of (inaudible). He throws people in jail because they don’t have directions to court and if you—go into the lobby and pick them up and hold them in contempt and throw policemen in jail. He’s like a wild animal. There are several people who—Tipperman is not quite as bad as Judge Duncan, but I think also should be gone. I think that they have become little giants. The crowd—the Texas Bar crowd—they designate who they want for judges. And the rule is that nobody runs against the incumbent. And that’s another reason why Judge Jefferson was elected, because they wanted to try to perpetuate this. And I’m not saying that Judge Jefferson is not a good judge. He is one of the best in the city. But the reason you find so many conservative, but white law firms bumping up behind Judge Jefferson was because they didn’t want anybody to destroy the system of winning against the incumbent. So you can’t hardly run for judge unless you’re an incumbent. The government appoints the judges for five term and then they’re elected, elected unopposed every year. And I think it’s terrible. And you know how everybody’s—the lawyers are afraid to run against the judges because they are afraid there might be repercussions, and there is. There’s probably going to be a repercussion if you run against a judge. And the whole system is don’t run against the incumbent and protect us.
I: Do you have any future plans for running for office?
AB: I—let me say this—I still have the political (inaudible), but I have my family—not only my immediate family, but my mother and all, who feel that I’ve given too much. And they—every time I talk about running for a judgeship—they—you know—they’re just like the Kennedys. Like most Kennedys don’t want Ted Kennedy to run for President. My family don’t want me to run for office. They said, “Don’t do it, because every time you run for office something happens.” And I keep jumping into it.
I: What advice do you give—or recommendations—do you give to young blacks starting out in the legal profession today?
AB: 1:22:15 I say work for a law firm in the beginning and learn how to practice law—something you’re not learning in law school. How to find the courthouse, where to file a petition, not what John versus Smith means, but how many petitions do you file here. What juror is more prejudice towards men if you represent a man in a divorce? Which one is more prejudice towards women if you’re representing a woman? I mean—the practical aspect of practicing law. I say, do a law firm—a lawyer. You can sacrifice for one year. Work with that lawyer or lawyers and become proficient in the practical aspect of law practice before going out there on your own.
I: Are there areas in the legal profession that we have not covered that you would like to comment on?
AB: T here are so many areas I could talk about it all night. I think that blacks should become more specialized. They should have more black law firms, and I hope to get one. I think if you get a law firm—it’s hard for anyone, black or white, to get together. It’s just like marriages. You can’t—you know—like there are many divorces—there are many divorces in law firms. But it’s the ideal thing to do. You can give better service to people if you specialize in the area. And I’m hoping to get about 4 or 5 more lawyers here that specialize in different areas of laws so that we can become an all around legal machinery of the community. That’s why my (inaudible).
I: We want to thank you for the interview, Mr. Butler. This has been August 9, 1974.
I2: Thanks very much.
(End of dictation)