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Interview with: Gene Locke
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: July 31, 2008
DG: Today is July 31, 2008. We are in the offices of Andrews Kurth, talking with Gene Locke for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Locke?
GL: I am wonderful, thank you.
DG: Great. Let’s begin at the beginning – tell me where you were born and when.
GL: Well, I was born in Conroe, Texas, April 26, 1947, as I fondly say, the colored wing of the city hospital in Conroe. Originally from East Texas. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived in San Jacinto County right outside of the metropolis of Cold Spring and Conroe was the closest hospital.
DG: Where did you go to school?
GL: Well, my mother moved to Marshall, Texas, and so I went to public school in Marshall, Texas, which is the northeast part of the state and as a youngster, I had this affinity for Houston and Dallas. Dallas was the closest metropolitan area to Marshall but Houston was the closest metropolitan area to Cold Springs where my grandparents lived. I always kind of loved Houston – thought it was kind of mysterious and alluring. I finished high school in Marshall, Texas in 1965. I am the product of the Jim Crow South which means that I am a product of segregated schools. I went to H.B. Pemberton High School which was the all black school in Marshall. I am proud to say that I finished valedictorian in my class and with that, had the opportunity to kind of decide on picking schools. For my family, particularly my mother’s side, education had really been a big push. My grandfather was a farmer but he and my grandmother sent 6 children through college and so, I am now the product of one of those children and it was expected that we would go to college, and it was probably expected that we would go to Prairie View because that had been the school of choice; actually, not just the school of choice – that is being too nice and kind with the description – it had been the only school available to African Americans who sought education before the advent of Texas Southern University. And so, my parents had gone to Prairie View and so that certainly was on my radar screen as a place to go. But because of the timing – 1965 – I had the fortunate experience to be living in the breakdown of the Jim Crow South and the opening of doors for African Americans, and I chose to go to the University of Houston. I was torn between the University of Texas and the University of Houston and a couple of all black schools – Wiley and Prairie View. But I did not want to stay in Marshall and go to Wiley and did not want to go to Prairie View, so I took the challenge of going to the University of Houston, and interestingly, the choice was, in part, made because of my affinity to Houston. I had worked in Houston for a couple of summers as a kid in high school. I had lived out here and so I liked the city and experienced a bit of the culture and the atmosphere in Houston. Secondly, the University of Houston had just integrated its athletic program and, to me, that was a very, very encouraging sign and it was kind of an attraction that kind of made me . . . it was like, you know, if I go over there, I will be part of something different. That had not happened at the University of Texas in 1965. So, I started at University of Houston in the fall of 1965. That is kind of how that happened.
DG: Those summers in Houston – what kind of work did you do?
GL: I had the honor of doing some high level maintenance – manual labor. I worked first in a laundry on North Main just north of the bayou here called Sunshine Laundry, and I did the most menial, backbreaking work, and I rode the city buses from Kashmere Gardens here in Houston to downtown. And it really was an extremely eye-opening experience for me. At the time, I was happy to have a job, was happy to be in Houston, and I did not appreciate the education that I was being afforded – not a textbook education from academic America but just kind of a common sense experience. I got up every day and went to a job that was not easy to do and did not pay a lot of money at all and I talked to people on the buses and I kind of felt their pain and their frustration and their hopes and their desires and it certainly made me want to go to college real quick to get an education, but it also made me understand the human value that people carry with them and it helped me to understand that if you could harness the hopes and dreams into some kind of productive activity, you really can advance society. Conversely, if you destroy the hopes and dreams and you kind of wrap people up in a capsule of defeatism, you end up with people being depressed and being a real problem and drag on society. And I learned that just from riding the bus every day because you had all different types of people who were kind of captured, same place, same time, you know, and you are just listening and learning. So, that was 2 years that I was in Houston in 1963 and 1964. It was interesting because that was also the time that America and its civil rights program was changing. I was in Houston on the day that the march on Washington occurred in 1963 and I remember watching it on a small black and white TV and the wonderful feelings of hope that that brought. I was in Houston after the Civil Rights Bill was passed and I knew how segregated Houston was before then . . . I was looking to see if there was any radical overnight transformation of Houston and there was not. There was a gradual change, a kind of reluctance/obedience to the new law of the land. But even the opening of the doors in Houston as a result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that expressly prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, it happened in Houston a heck of a lot faster than it happened in most parts of Texas, and certainly a hell of a heck of a lot more expeditiously than it happened in East Texas where I am from. I remember going back, driving through East Texas 4, 5, 6 years later while I am a student at the University of Houston and after that, and still seeing the signs and the remnants of Jim Crow. So, in fairness to Houston, there was a reluctant change but there was a definitive change and it happened. So, those few years in Houston leading up to becoming a college student were very, very helpful for me.
DG: Before we get to your University of Houston years, you were a junior/senior in high school when you came to Houston those summers, 16, 17, 18 years old . . .
DG: Were you shoved to Houston by parents who wanted you to experience it or were you always sort of independent and willing and able to go out on your own?
GL: I was always independent, wanting to be on my own. The world was different then, too, I mean. The expectation was that young people would, at the earliest possible opportunity, become self-sufficient, and those of us who kind of liked calling the shots for ourselves, and I was like that at 16, I was not an unruly kid, by any means, but I clearly liked things to happen my way and I learned the value of a lesion that, you know, was taught to me early on – if you wanted your way, you paid it for yourself. And coming to Houston afforded me the opportunity to have some independence and I loved it. I flat out loved it. It was just wonderful.
DG: What did you do for fun when you were working?
GL: Some things that I would rather not say but let’s just say that there was a social life in Houston and age was not necessarily a bar to participation in that social life. And I did not miss many opportunities. Let’s just leave it at that.
DG: All right, we will leave it at that. It is your story. So, you end up at the University of Houston. What did you find? Did it match your expectations?
GL: When I got to University of Houston, nothing that I had experienced prepared me, coming from a smaller East Texas school to a student body population in excess of 22,000, 23,000, at the time. However, as surprising as this may sound, I had been equipped academically pretty well, and I did not find that the academic rigors at the University of Houston were so daunting that I could not do them. I had to learn how to study. I had to learn how to discipline myself. But I had been prepared by the teachers at Pemberton for the basics. And I think that is a part of segregation. To digress just for a moment, one of the byproducts of Jim Crow segregation was African Americans who were gifted were restricted to certain professions and teaching was one of those professions. So, you got some very bright, very committed, very intelligent people who could only go to the classroom to teach and they did a very good job with a lot of students. I am the beneficiary of that. What I found at the University of Houston though is that the University of Houston was just integrating itself. Remember that U of H had been a private institution until 1963. It became state supported in 1963 and as a result of that, it had to become integrated. As a private institution, the University of Houston was a segregated school and there were no African Americans there. So, I am in the very early wing, not the first wing but the very early wing of African American students. And really, the fall of 1965 is the first year there were any African Americans in any appreciable numbers at the University of Houston. And the school was not, in any way, ready to accept us. There was this notion that integration could be had by simply opening the doors and the black students would simply find their way in some way. Well, unfortunately, when you have kept people apart because of law, custom, political power and economic repression, you cannot simply just right all of that by saying, O.K., now, everything is open. And for the few African American students who were there, I think that all of us felt a sense of not really being welcome, not because anybody came to you and said, this is not your school or that people said bad things to you, it was just that there was no sense that you belonged to the process. You were kind of isolated and the school did not do a job that was sufficient in blending cultures, bringing people together, and I think that was something that all of us resented at the time. We felt like we were stepchildren.
DG: To what extent do you think that was true of the city as a whole?
GL: I think it is probably the way that America as a country tried to handle integration and I think it was the way that Houston tried to handle it. It was just, let’s play like nothing existed, open the doors and everything is going to be fine, without really understanding that racism produced political and social schisms that could not go away just with the signing of the 1964 Public Accommodations Act or anything else. So, I think my experience at the University of Houston was, in fact, similar to the experience that a lot of African Americans found in other aspects of life, whether you are the first fireman or the first set of police officers or the first secretaries in a corporate environment. Things were different.
DG: One thing that is probably more tangible in the educational environment is the concept of expectation. You have said in other interviews that at the University of Houston, you felt as if the expectations for black students were lower and that that was something that you resented.
GL: I felt like, for too many of my instructors, not all but for too many of my instructors, there was a low expectation of African American students, a feeling not that we did not belong but that just we could not excel. I can still remember a look of surprise when you would receive a paper back and it had an A or a B on it and you talked to your professor about it and they were just surprised that you had produced this work product. And my view was, you know, I do not know why I got a B on this thing. I mean, I know I can do better. I know I am A material. And so, you ran into a lot of that. And you would laugh at it when the grade was A and B, you felt bad about it when the grade was C or D, because you wondered if you were graded on a curve that was just for you. But, you know, that was an experience I think that a lot of African American students had and it is something that had to be worked through. And, again, the University had no discussions about it. Everything was just something was going to happen on its own time and on its own scale. But what it led to was kind of a simmering resentment on the part of the students about their college life.
DG: How did you respond?
GL: I think at first I responded on a personal level. At various times, anger, frustration, a certain level of depression about it followed by anger and frustration, and then I realized in talking to folks that other African Americans had the same kind of feeling. And so, then, I really went into a feeling, well, let’s not overblow this. I don’t want to cry wolf when really there is no wolf around and maybe I didn’t do enough. So, there were feelings of self doubt because, you know, I am going to college for the first time and so while I think I did real well, I really do not know what to expect in a college environment. But as time went on, I began to marry those feelings of individual inadequacy and concern about my environment at the University of Houston with what was happening in Houston politically and socially and what was happening in the country politically and socially. Remember that the late 1960s was the hottest time in the change in America. The early 1960s were marked with massive confrontations, sit-ins, marches and demonstrations that produced a lot of legislation but is the latter half of the 1960s that really took things to another level altogether, both in terms of nonviolent activities and unfortunately, in terms of violent activities. So, America was really turning itself away from its past and it was a painful and difficult ordeal for the whole country and for everybody who was participating in that process. And there was a lot of anger with the war in Vietnam, a lot of anger with race relations in the country, and a feeling in the African American community that, by golly, things are not moving fast enough at all. And that led to further resentment and anger and frustration in how do you explain 3 or 4 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that things are still segregated? And how do you explain 12 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, the schools are still segregated and school boards are still trying to figure out how to handle this problem? That kind of led to a generation of people like myself who became very impatient and very demanding, and the image of the Civil Rights Act that this changed from those people who were asking for accommodations to people who were angrily demanding their rights. And I was part of the second group – angrily demanding that there be change and it happen right now. So, when you put my personal experiences at the University of Houston with what was happening across the country, it led me to become a political activist. And, for me, it was late 1966, early 1967, I saw myself go from this mild-mannered student who had really no expectations about where I was going to somebody who basically felt that I had a right to stand and holler from the top of my voice, right is right and wrong is wrong. And for the remainder of my tenure at the University of Houston, that is kind of what I was about, while still maintaining good grades and being a good student I am proud to say. I never lost focus of why I was there or what I needed to do.
DG: The issues of the time are pretty well known: Vietnam, race relations – you have mentioned some of them – but what were some of the specific events you either helped organize or were involved in?
GL: Well, you know, one of the very earliest things that I noticed was that the University of Houston sat in the middle of a Third Ward neighborhood which, some aspects were pretty impoverished, depressed, and I just felt that the University had some responsibility to the larger community to participate. And I remember, you know, us trying to talk to the school about outreach programs from the school and get very, very frustrated that we could not get the straight of how to do it and that kind of led to a group of us just saying, O.K., well, we will do it ourselves. And a lot of African American students just started a tutorial program for elementary and junior high kids off campus and then we got the support of certain sectors of the University that led to that level of kind of activity. That was the first kind of experience. And then, you know, we began to become involved in the issues of the day, and the issues of the day in Houston ranged from community issues like community development, neighborhood parks, schools, the protests that people had. If you remember this time, and you won’t remember it – you are too young – but for those of us who lived the time, there were no African Americans on City Council. There were very few African Americans who worked in any position of prominence at city government. And there was a feeling that for both the African American and the growing Hispanic community, they were still a minority community then but a growing community; that both communities were an afterthought in terms of city resources, in terms of city priorities. And so, we just felt as students, we had to have some involvement in that. And what that led to were a lot of protests and demonstrations in neighborhoods that ultimately led to arrests and those kinds of things. One in particular was a situation out in the Sunnyside neighborhood at a city dump called the Holmes Road Dump. The neighbors in that neighborhood, the people in that neighborhood, had been asking the city for a long time to close the dump but they really did not have a voice at City Hall. The dump had been there for years and there was really no movement on the part of city government to change it. There were a couple of incidents at the dump of kids getting hurt and that ultimately led to a young man who drowned there. And so, a number of us then led a series of protests at the dump. Well, that is the kind of thing that college students had the time and the liberty to do because we were college students that other people in the African American community could not do because there were other priorities and other consequences if they did. For us, the only consequence was, you know, can we get back to go to class the next day? And, you know, when you look back on it, it was a meaningful opportunity for us to make change. That then led to all kinds of issues, you know, anti-war protests on campus and off campus, rallies and demonstrations and on and on and on. And so, much of my college life at the University was spent dealing with those community issues. But towards my last year there in 1968 and early 1969, as I was getting ready to graduate, it became clear to us that we needed to leave some significant institutional change at the University of Houston, that the school that I had come into 3 or 4 years before still essentially was the same school and we had not impacted it at all. And so, there was a push on the part of our students for more black faculty, more minority faculty, more counselors, more financial aid. The level of financial support for students that is available now was unheard of back in the 1960s. There was a demand for a black history course in the curriculum and for an African American studies program and that led to a series of demonstrations throughout the spring of 1969 that ultimately resulted in confrontations with the administration but ultimately led to the creation of an African American studies program, led to the commitment on the part of the University to outreach and bring in more faculty and staff, and to provide more financial aid. So, I think we did a lot of very good things in a short period of time. But interestingly, you know, one of the things that I am proudest of during that whole time, while we called for all of these changes at the University, one of the things that we called for was a payment of more than minimum wage for the custodial and janitorial staff because there was a sense that, you know, there were these people at the University who did not have a voice and they were not unionized and they were folks that we interfaced with on a regular basis, and I think the difference between a lot of the African American students and a lot of our fellow Cougar students was that we came from families that had janitors and cooks and bus boys, and when we looked at those people who were cleaning the room and cutting the grass, we said, that could be my uncle or my dad or my mother, and there was a sense of commitment to their lives that was important to us. And that was the beginning of a kind of, I think, a notion that I have tried to maintain in my whole life which is I am my brother’s keeper and in some way, the plight of other Houstonians is my responsibility, and while I cannot make the world right for everybody, I’ve got a sense of obligation to do what I can when I can, how I can.
DG: The student activism that existed at the University of Houston, did it operate on an island or did you coordinate, communicate with the students at TSU or nonstudents within the city, the young people within the city? How did that happen?
GL: Oh, we had a network of folks that really spanned the state. From the University of Houston, we started organizing or helping to organize students at the University of Texas, at Lamar University, at North Texas State, and at Stephen F. Austin, and we would actually travel to these schools and meet and share our experiences and network. Obviously, Texas Southern University, next door to the University of Houston, was just a walk down Wheeler Street and there was a lot of interfacing between the students at U of H and the students at Texas Southern, so much so that almost every demonstration started at the University of Houston and went through Texas Southern University and ended up at its point of destination. You know, I smile when I look back on those times but I will tell you, when I was going through it as a young man, you were young enough to be reckless in your attack of the unknown but the truth of the matter is, there was some fear. There was some uncertainty about what you were walking into. I had no illusions about the reality of racism in Houston or the Houston Police Department or what could happen to you for being out of line. We tried to conduct ourselves in a way where we would push our acts of civil disobedience or our lawful civil protests as far as we could without going over the edge because we knew that there would be significant ramifications. And so, at the University of Houston, while it was fashionable for students at Columbia and other schools to take over buildings in the administration and hold those buildings until their demands were met. That never was a strategy that we felt we had the luxury to entertain and it was not on our radar screen because we realized that the repercussions for doing that in Houston could have been so severe. We also realized that the University of Houston was in a precarious position and there were those in the Legislature who were not U of H grads, who would not think twice about sending the Texas Rangers down to try to clean up the University and you would have literally law enforcement agencies competing with each other to see who could be the most repressive against these student demonstrators, and not wanting to invite that upon ourselves and not thinking that that was a good strategy, you know, we said, there are certain things we can do and certain things we cannot do given our situation.
DG: Are there people who stand out in your memory during that time, either on the administration at University of Houston, on the faculty, fellow students, who played lead roles in advancing the cause of African Americans at U of H?
GL: Yes, there were a lot of people. When you are young and you are in the heat of a battle, you tend to want to villainize anybody who is on the other side of you and you want to unite with anybody that says anything kind to you. It is only years later that I have learned that, you know, there really was a lot of depth to somebody’s opposition and a lot of suspicion you ought to have about everybody who unites with you. But there are 2 or 3 people that come to mind. One person is Dr. Robert Hayes who was a history professor, originally from Mississippi, who taught the first African American history course there and who ultimately became a big mover in making change there. And he did it not with a pulpit but just by being a white male southerner who would be willing to teach the course and who taught the course in a way that people kind of understood that he had something of value to offer. Eleanor Tinsley’s husband, Dr. Tinsley, who was a professor at the University of Houston, the same way. I remember there was a professor I think in the Political Science Department named Banfield who was run off from the University early on because of his political views, and maybe because of some allegations of sexual orientation, but it kind of helped to teach me that, you know, when you buck the system, you can be run off. But there were a lot of people like that and, you know, a lot of students who came to the aid of the movement. I mean, some of my best friends I met at the University of Houston – black, brown, white, and they are friends with me today. I love to pull out the old pictures and see the old crowd standing around at rallies and demonstrations, and these are people both on the left and the right or pro and against. I remember some of the debates that we would have with the pro-Vietnam young Republicans and some of those guys, you know, I became good friends with because we would debate and go at each other, because in the spirit of competition, you begin to respect the adversary on the other side and you begin to say, you know, that guy has got some crappy ideas but he really is a good guy. And, you know, learning that at a young age is very, very instructive because it helps you then not to demonize people as you go along just because they may have a different view than you have on a particular issue.
DG: Now, you graduated in 1969 and the chronology would say you graduated from law school in 1981, so what did you do for 12 years?
GL: Well, I guess at one point, I thought that there could be a career in civil rights protest and I was very much involved immediately after finishing the University of Houston in a lot of political protests and demonstrations, but I found out there was no career being a political or professional revolutionary so I quit that profession and went to law school later on. But I am proud of the fact that I was involved in a lot of activities locally. I ran a couple of nonprofit organizations. One was called the Acorn Community Center on the northwest side, lower Heights area, and then Hope Development in the Fifth Ward area. I was also the Chairman of the National African Liberation Support Committee, the National Chairman and we helped raise money and really turn the light of the nation on the plight of folks in southern Africa, particular South Africa. This is while Apartheid was still in its most vicious form. I really enjoyed that. I was involved in some of the early efforts to elect African American political officials of Houston – the Barbara Jordan campaign early on; Curtis Graves, first his election to State House but then later on, his ill-fated attempt to run for mayor. I began to get involved in local politics and then with the advent of single member districts in the 1970s, you began to see a lot of people of color being elected to positions. And I think it was during that time that I began to really understand that it is very important to be on the outside trying to make change and at a certain point in America’s history, in Houston’s history, it is important to be on the outside. But when doors start to open, you have to go through those doors and you have to do the best you can on the inside. And so, for me, you know . . . it was not an education that came overnight because as a young person, I had been this activist, but then I began to realize that, you know, I can make a contribution in a different way and probably I deserve it for myself, for my family, but more importantly, if I am going to make any contribution at all, it is going to be because I’ve got skills to do something else. And so, you know, I started to try to go to law school. I tried to get in to U of H. They would not have me. I raised too much heck and hey over there. I could not go to TSU because I had to go as a part-time student as opposed to a full-time student. So, I ended up going to South Texas College of Law, got in. I worked at an oil refinery, at Shell Oil, while I was in law school. And so, basically, it took me 3-1/2 years of being a part-time student while working at a refinery. But, you know, I got my law degree and set up shop in 1982. I got my degree in 1981.
DG: And in the city of Houston, there were changes. You sort of left the angry 1960s and then there was a period of economic boom for Houston during that time, a lot of explosive growth. How did all of that affect the black community, the African American community?
GL: I do not think that we were the prime beneficiaries of that. I think that things were still slowly changing and so there were more and more opportunities being created but, you know, the changes were happening incrementally and not like a rising tide. There was no flood of change, it was just . . . and so, it may have taken 10, 12, 14 years to go from having no appreciable numbers of African Americans, say, in city government, to an identifiable small group of folks, but once that happened, then you get more and more people coming in. And the same is true in the corporate world. You did not find that many . . . you found very few African Americans in positions of authority and responsibility in corporate Houston. And so, as a result of that, you did not have us being the beneficiaries of the boom of Houston. We simply were still at the bottom or so close to the bottom of the barrel that, you know, we got whatever was left over. But my generation was a generation of younger people who were beginning to become trailblazers and then the generation after me were really the greater beneficiaries of the transition.
DG: So, your decision to enter law school was a logical extension of your desire to change things, the desire to accelerate change but to do it from a position of influence from the inside – would that be fair to say?
GL: I think that is fair to say. It probably reads too much into it. I think at a certain point, I got tired of working at Shell at night and decided that, you know, I could do something different with my life. And so, I used the experience of working at Shell and I used the benefits that Shell gave. Shell paid for my college, for my law school, because they had a program that was not designed for law students, it was designed for folks in the refinery to further get technical skills but the policy did not restrict itself to a technical school and I made the compelling argument that if you could pay for a pipefitter to go to San Jacinto Junior College to get some additional training, you could pay for me to go to law school. And with that, I was able to pay for the private tuition at South Texas that I could not have afforded otherwise, that and going to school. So, I was glad that I made the decision and for me, when I walked into law school, a whole new world opened up. The world of critical thinking, analytical thinking, putting aside preconceived notions, and trying to wrestle with the facts at hand, I literally had to undo a lot of how I felt the world was to come to the intellectual position that I am going to look at the facts and the matter behind the facts and reach conclusions based on that and not based on any preconceived way that I think things ought to be. And, you know, I shout halleluiah because I made that transformation, because it has been the best thing that could have happened for me, both intellectually and in terms of just my world view.
DG: So, you graduate from law school armed with a degree so you could enjoy the economic fruits of a booming economy, you go to work for Mickey Leland. Explain that chronology.
GL: Yes, I actually went to work with a small law firm – Eric Nelson, Ed Mallette, Patrick Weissman and some other guys, and was really learning the tools of the track. I started out just learning how to be a lawyer and a great experience for me because I got to do things that only young lawyers were asked to do, but after about 1 year, Congressman Leland who I had known for years – Mickey and I had been in school together, he at Texas Southern while I was at the University of Houston, and we had traveled together on a lot of protests and activities. He is now in Washington and he needs a chief of staff in Washington, so he comes to me not once, not twice, not three but five different times asking me, insisting that I be his chief of staff in Washington. I was remarried and had no intention of going to Washington but Leland was pretty persuasive and ultimately, I decided, you know, hey, this is something I would like to do. Give it a shot. So, I literally moved to Washington, ran his Washington office and spent time between D.C. and Houston but I also kind of tried to oversee the affairs of his Houston office and was both his political operative and his kind of policy guy, as well as the administrator of the office. I enjoyed working with Mickey. I enjoyed a lot of the activities we were in but, you know, to be a Liberal Democrat in Washington, D.C. then during the height of the Reagan Administration and during the debacle that was Walter Mondale running for president, you know, that was just not a fun experience. And somehow, I did not think that I was making the kind of contribution that would justify me not honing my skills as a lawyer. And I began to be real concerned that, you know, this policy stuff, it comes to me intuitively -- I get it, I understand it, I love it, but I also need some hard skills that people can see and immediately respect because at the end of the day, you have to have value in what you offer people and you cannot offer value just with your ideas alone. So, I really wanted to go back to Houston, learn how to be a real lawyer, learn how to practice law, so I left Washington in 1985 and came back and resumed my practice. I did that and loved it. I mean, I tried to handle my business in a way that I could be proud and I handled cases that helped me to pay the rent and the overhead and I handled cases that were fun to do and I loved it. I represented little people, I represented big people, I represented some businesses, trade unions. Eric Nelson and I practiced law together. He was a wonderful partner and he and I, you know, had really some good times together.
Probably the single most rewarding case that I handled as a lawyer with our firm, Nelson and Locke, was in the early 1990s when a number of students from Prairie View A&M University came to me with a problem that they had been indicted for voting. There had been indictments against 15 students at Prairie View because they had voted and the allegation was that they had voted without being properly registered to vote. And when I started to unveil the facts, unfold the facts, I began to realize that that was not the case, that, in fact, Waller County was caught up political change and somebody was trying to repress political participation from the students at Prairie View. And so, a number of these students who had signed the affidavit swearing that they had registered to vote, had, in fact, registered to vote but since the registrar could not find the registration, they were criminally charged with felony, election fraud. And I was able to get all of those cases dismissed although I was not a criminal lawyer. I was able to get the cases dismissed, get an apology from the folks at Waller County and get the records expunged on the students. You know, that single experience was just -- it is something that will always be with me – just seeing those young people, seeing their faces restored into the political process and in the justice process, talking to them 2 or 3 years later when they graduated college, and 5, 10 years later when they come back and just say, “Thank you again,” it is one of the most meaningful things that I have done as a lawyer.
DG: I can imagine. It is actually the kind of experience that would have made you angry 20 years before and now you are in a position to do something about it.
DG: That’s neat. From 1995 to 1998, you were the Houston City Attorney. What path brought you there?
GL: Mayor Lanier had interviewed me in 1992 when he became mayor as the city attorney. He ended up selecting Ben Hall, Benjamin Hall, and then in 1995, he called me again and asked me was I interested? I had a fairly good law practice then and I was happy and did not want to do it but, you know, my friends talked me into it. They said, ‘It would be a great experience, it is the kind of thing you love to do and do not get too comfortable doing what you are doing because there is something else bigger and greater for you.’ And so, I signed on and I had 3 wonderful years with Mayor Lanier. His administration was a fabulous administration, from my perspective. He was an outstanding mayor, he was a man of vision, of courage, and he was a hard worker. He pushed me and in pushing me, I think, brought out things that I did not think that I had in myself. We worked on a lot of issues. We worked on Affirmative Action. We worked on economic development downtown. We worked on all of the loss of the Houston Oilers and the rebuilding of stadiums in Houston – not 1, not 2, but 3. And we did it in a way that I think most Houstonians were kind of proud of Houston at the time so I had a wonderful experience as City Attorney. I enjoyed it, loved working for the city, especially working for Mayor Lanier. It kind of renewed my faith in public service.
DG: You are General Counsel to the Harris County Sports Authority and Counsel to the Port Commission of the Port of Houston?
DG: That is a varied portfolio. How did you arrive at each of those?
GL: I left the City Attorney’s office and went into private practice and it was almost a natural that I would become counsel for the Sports Authority because it was newly created, it did not really have anybody kind of in place. I kind of walked into that. And then, I joined a large firm that was first Merriday, Caldwell and Keeton. It is now Andrews Kurth, and inherited the Port of Houston work from my good friend, Kenny Friedman, who left the firm, and because I think people knew that, you know, I am this guy who has been a government lawyer and understands public law and understands the nuances of how to be a lawyer to a governmental entity but also is somebody who has been in the political process and understands the politics. That has served me well that people have asked me to work in that capacity. And so now, I have both the Port of Houston, I am Special Counsel to Metro, and Special Counsel to Port Authority, and I am fortunate enough that I have represented Dallas County and the City of San Antonio and Galveston, and so, you know, I developed a practice of representing governments and, you know, I love it. It is a long way from the guy who was on the outside complaining about the system. Now, I am the guy that people complain about!
DG: Now you are the system!
DG: That is fascinating. And when you make that shift, I mean, do you keep the same sensibility, do you still see yourself as a change agent from the inside?
GL: I do. I think that there is a lot of change that needs to take place but let me say first that I am proud of Houston. I do not know that I could have done what I did in most American cities. Maybe I could have. But I did it in Houston and there has to be a reason. And the reason is not just Gene Locke. The reason is that Houston has grown, has changed, has matured, has become much more open, and as a consequence, opportunities are much more real now than they were 30 years ago when I started kind of out in this area. That is not to say that the doors are fully wide open and everybody can do everything that we would want to do but it is to say that there is a constant need for change and that people like me can get in the inside and make things happen.
DG: You said you would not have been able to have done what you have done. What have you done? What gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment looking back on your career, your careers, in all these different areas, trying to affect change at University of Houston, trying to affect change in the communities, trying to affect change in city governments, state governments. Obviously, everything is a team effort -- there are other people – but what gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction?
GL: Well, I think two things: that I was part of a generation of folks who were fortunate enough to take the mantle of social and political change on our backs and walk down the road with it, and when you see people like that years later, live through it, who participated in it, irrespective of what organization or what community, what race, what religion, it makes you feel good when you feel like, you know, there were generations of Americans whose grandparents, parents and children all lived at about the same level of opportunity and we have got a chance to bust the doors wide open. That is a great, great feeling. The other thing I think is the feeling that, you know, at least as a young man, I had the courage to stand on the outside and demand that there be change. I mean, I don’t know that I would have that courage now, if I was 19 or 20. And then, I think, from the standpoint as a lawyer, the ability to work on so many fascinating things and to be a contributor to it. You look at the redevelopment of downtown Houston and I can say, you know, I was a lawyer who was a part of that process because it was the Lanier Administration that made it happen. I look at the 3 stadiums that were built. I was the lawyer on Minute Maid Stadium. I was the lawyer on Reliant. I was the lawyer on Toyota. It is just kind of very, very gratifying when I can go to Minute Maid and I can see, well, you know, these seats have this emblem. I remember us arguing about the legal issues associated with who could advertise over here. But I guess probably the most rewarding is when I see people who believe that I have touched their lives in some kind of way -- younger people or people my age or older, who I will just meet and they will identify themselves and they will say that there was a certain point that I did something, that I may or may not remember and it was important to them. It makes me feel good to know that I was in the right place at the right time to affect some level of change.
DG: I am going to say it for the sake of the record. You have been on the board of the Center for Houston’s Future, the Chairman of the Houston Katrina Rita Fund, Trustee for the Texas Southern University Foundation, Fellow of the American Leadership Forum, and you served on the board of directors of the Houston Bar Association, the Center for the Retarded, the Houston Community College System, and University of Houston Alumni Association. Where did you find the time? You received the Diversity First Award from the Texas Diversity Council in 2007, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from South Texas College of Law, the Alumni Association from the University of Houston Black Alumni Association, and also Past Recipient of the NAACP Freedom Award For Outstanding Service. We talked about what gives you the most satisfaction. What is left? What are your goals for the future? What do we see from you in the next 5 to 10 years?
GL: Well, I hope that I am still practicing law. I hope that I am still making a meaningful contribution. I think that one of the things that I would like to be able to do is to be able to inspire people who are just moving to a different point in their lives, to show them what my experience has been and maybe be an inspiration. I think that is very important. I have no illusions that, you know, I can go on a circuit and rally the troops and change the world but, you know, there are a lot of people who are facing some tough times or maybe not such . . . they are just talented people who need that little extra push, and maybe they are from well-to-do families and can do better or maybe they are not from well-to-do families. I would like to be able to do that. I would like to have my pulse on the politics of Houston. I enjoy that. I love this city and I want to continue to make a contribution to it in whatever way, and I want to enjoy my grandkids!
DG: What is the best thing about living and working in Houston?
GL: Well, the safest answer would be to say the people and there is much to be said about the people of Houston, you know, mainly good people, warm, friendly, courteous, but I think it is more than that. I think that the best thing is Houston, because it has been a city that has welcomed newcomers, has no predetermined cast system, cast not in terms of just economics but in terms of social standing, in terms of political participation. Houston is fluid and because it is fluid, you can move in and out of a lot of different circles. I wear western boots every day because that is what I want to do and a lot of lawyers who practice at the civil courthouse would not be caught dead in other cities in boots. It would be just kind of unheard of. But in Houston, it is kind of understood. That is a small example of how you can go against the grain and still make your mark in this city. That is a good environment to be in.
DG: You look at our city. Is there anything that still makes you angry, anything you would like to change, anything you wish you had the ability to change?
GL: Oh, yes, a lot of things. I think our poverty rate is an embarrassment and I think the health of our citizens is an embarrassment. Those are things we are going to have to work hard on. It is going to take a lot. There are some other things we can solve. We can solve the transportation problem in Houston. It is going to take a while but we can solve that. We can solve the environmental problems in Houston. We can do that. It is just going to take some time. But those are things we will work on. One of the great things about living, whether it is in Houston or America, there are always some problems to work on. And so, you just pick one one day and get after it.
DG: Mr. Locke, thank you for your time.
GL: Thank you.