Black History Month Series – Carl Maxey
By: Fred Rabb
Today in celebration of Black History Month, we recognize the contributions of Carl Maxey.
Carl Maxey was a Washington State civil rights lawyer who was born in Tacoma, WA in 1924. He was adopted by a family from Spokane, WA, and lived with them until he was four years old when his father left and his mother died. The State moved him to Spokane Children’s’ Home orphanage until it stopped caring for Black children and then the State moved him to the Spokane County Juvenile Detention center when he was 12 years old. Three months later a Jesuit priest, took him to Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart Indian School in DeSmet, Idaho.
Carl excelled in academics and athletics and loved to box. When he was 13 years old, he won a match against a 33-year-old man. After graduating high school Carl joined the Army during World War II where he saw the injustices of segregation on open display in the Jim Crow south. His outrage at the lack of civil rights Black soldiers had in the Army sparked his passion for becoming a lawyer.
Carl attended the Gonzaga School of Law in Spokane and earned his law degree in 1951, becoming the first and only Black person in Spokane to pass the bar exam. At this time, Spokane did not have any Black doctors, dentists, or teachers—Carl was the lone Black professional. Carl immediately began fighting for civil rights upon graduation.
In 1951, Carl met Eugene Breckenridge, a Black man with a master’s in education, washing windows in Spokane because he could not find a job as a teacher. Breckenridge’s application had languished for two years on the superintendent’s desk. Carl talked directly to the superintendent but quickly realized the problem was systemic and approached the School Board which approves all hires. The Board still did not want to hire a Black teacher despite Carl’s persuasion, so he threatened to sue them with the help of the NAACP. The board acquiesced and allowed Breckenridge to become the first Black teacher in Spokane. Carl’s efforts ended the color bar in the school district and by 1969 there were 20 Black teachers in Spokane.
Carl brought and won many civil rights cases including In re Johnson, where he sued a white barber who refused to cut the hair of an African student solely on the basis of his race. Carl successfully argued the barber shop was a place of public accommodation and that the barber’s conduct was discriminatory under Washington law. The barber was made to write an apology and open its doors to patrons of all races. This case made national news and was a warning to all businesses in the area that racial discrimination was no longer acceptable.
Five presidents, beginning in 1963 with John F. Kennedy, appointed Carl to the Washington State Advisory Committee to the U. S. Civil Rights Commission. Carl was a fighter his whole life and continued to fight for justice as an attorney until he died in 1997.