Judge McClain Reflects on Lifetime of 'Firsts'
By Amanda Chalifoux
Jan. 11, 2013
(Editor's note: Judge McClain passed away Feb. 4, 2014 at age 101. This story originally appeared in the Law Quadrangle four years ago.)
William McClain's career has been marked by success despite the odds, from his role as the first black city solicitor of a major U.S. city to becoming the first black common pleas court judge in Cincinnati. Now 97, McClain, '37, reflects on lessons learned from a lifetime spent overcoming obstacles—all made possible, he says, by a simple "winning attitude."
When I was young, there were not many professions open to a black man. You had to be a lawyer, doctor, dentist, or minister. Everything else had too many barriers. So I chose the law to break down racism, segregation, and discrimination in the legal profession.
I couldn't change my black face or what I was born into, but I could change my future. I knew there was a positive way to win, no matter the obstacle.
There's a duality in life. There's a winter and a summer. There's always a good and a bad, a sweet and a sour. Your challenge is to find the opposite to the negative. Sometimes, you can turn a negative into a positive.
The defining moment in my life was when I won the national oratory contest [the National Interstate Oratorical Association competition, held at Northwestern University on April 28, 1934]. I knew if I could win a national contest as a black youngster, with the background that I had, that I could achieve anything if I found a strategy to do it.
In law school, I was the only black student. I had to struggle. I studied by myself because I could not live on campus.
I always thought there was a vulnerable spot in the armor of my opponent. My challenge was to find that weakness.
I missed passing the bar exam by a few points the first time and didn't have any funds to re-take it. But Theodore Berry, who would become the first black mayor of Cincinnati, had heard about me when I won the national oratory contest. So after I finished law school, I went to Cincinnati [where McClain took—and passed—the bar exam] to practice law with Ted. He became my benefactor and my angel.
By sitting in the second chair, I learned a lot. I did all the work that lawyers hate to do. I investigated cases, talked to witnesses, and did all the research for the city trial lawyer. I also studied all I could about municipal law.
I started my career by filing a civil rights suit. When I was filing the case in court, the common pleas judge said, "Other lawyers can fight the larger race problem. But you should fight the professional problem and break down discrimination within the law."
Becoming a member of the bar made me feel like a first-class citizen. I was denied twice because of my race. When I got in, I'd broken down the final barrier of my profession.
Before I die, I hope to meet President Obama, because he's had a winning attitude, too. I want to sit down and compare notes with him about how he was able to overcome the negative part of racism and make it positive to become the first black president of the United States. I'm sure we share some things in common.
I feel that you owe legacy. That's why mentoring is important to me. It was the legacies I received from others that made me what I am. I'm repaying the past by helping those in the present with their futures.
I've had a fine life. I married a beautiful lady, and we've been married for 67 years. I thank God for giving me the strategy, courage, and ability to survive and make a contribution to life and to history.
In 1951, McClain became the first black member of the Cincinnati Bar Association. Besides holding positions as Cincinnati's city solicitor and Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge, he also served as judge and civil trial referee for the Municipal Court of Hamilton County. McClain is retired from the law firm of Manley Burke, a position held since 1980. He has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Great Living Cincinnatian Award. McClain received an honorary degree from the University of Michigan in 2002.
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