At 13 years old, Marvin Arrington discovered racism was real.
It was the same day the United States Supreme Court decided segregated schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
It was a decision that sparked the outrage of many whites who would seek to take out their anger on countless blacks – even a defenseless Southern boy.
Young Arrington was riding his bike up Simpson Road with his friend, Melvin Rivers, when a 1940 Ford slowed down then stopped beside him. He looked at the driver—a white man, a stranger—who leaned out the window and spat in his face.
The man drove off, leaving the visibly shaken behind him. Arrington’s eyes glistened as he looked at his friend. Melvin said nothing. There was nothing he could say.
“I just laid my bike on the ground and cried.”
Ashamed and confused, young Arrington struggled to understand why anyone would do that to another person. Still, that incident made him resolve to fight against discrimination through the court system.
Now a Fulton County Superior Court Judge celebrating his 71st birthday later this month, Marvin S. Arrington Sr. reflects on the path that brought him there.
After graduating from Turner High School in 1959, the high school quarterback received an athletic scholarship to attend Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). To supplement his expenses, Arrington did odd jobs including continuing the paper route he began when he was 11 years old and that often required him getting up at 4:15 a.m.
After graduating in 1963, he attended Howard University. But during the summer after his first year, Arrington went to Emory Law School Library to study and ran into the dean who asked if he would be interested in attending the all-white school. Homesick, Arrington said yes, and in 1967 he became one of the first African Americans to graduate from Emory.
Arrington went on to practice corporate and criminal law, balancing the needs of his clients with that of his then wife and their two children.
“He was always there when I needed him,” said Marvin Arrington Jr., also an Atlanta attorney. He recalled how he locked himself out of his car one night after a high school soccer game. He woke his father who drove across town to help him.
“He used to wake me up every morning during the summer to say goodbye,” the younger Arrington said. But he believed his father was also sending him a message: get up and do something with your life.
From his father, he learned the importance of hard work and always providing for your family. He watched his father’s dedication in serving his community, and soon his father became role model and hero.
At a time when there weren’t many black attorneys in the state, Arrington carved a name for himself—listing among his clients Fortune 500 companies. He partnered with noted Civil Rights Attorney Donald L. Hollowell whose clients included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Arrington spent about 30 years as a member of the old board of alderman and as a city council member and president.
As an alderman he had the signs removed that separated water fountains for black and whites at City Hall. He made sure women were appointed chairs of committees.
Said Arrington, “I fought discrimination at all levels.”
At one point, he ran for Atlanta mayor against Bill Campbell and lost. His destiny lied elsewhere. And in 2001, Arrington became a judge, taking on the charge of ensuring that cases are properly prosecuted.
Now the of son a truck driver and domestic worker is faced with a new set of challenges as he deals daily with cases that scrapes the bottom of humanity: The father who slept with his two daughters, the young black men who execute each other over $20 worth of crack cocaine. Others who kill each other for no reason, but to be mean.
“Seeing that people have no regard for human life," Arrington said, "that bothers me.”
Though he wiped away the spit and scrubbed his face that day to remove any visible mark, that spit impacted his life and is chronicled in his book, “Making My Mark: the Story of A Man Who Wouldn’t Stay in His Place.”
With that spit, Arrington believes the white man was trying to tell him to “stay in his place.”
But through his determination and hard work, Arrington sends another message, “Don’t ever give up, stay in the race. Don’t let anything turn you around."
Editor's Note: Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond—on behalf of the Atlanta City Council—will honor Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington, Sr. on Mon., Feb. 6.
A receception is set for noon to 12:45 p.m. on the 2nd floor of Atlanta City Hall, on the southwest side of the City Council Chambers, followed by a proclamation presentation at 1 p.m. in the Council Chambers.
Please R.S.V.P. by February 2nd to firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-330-6770.
A version of this column first appeared in Cascade Patch on Feb. 11, 2011.