Milton Allen gave all of us much better than he received


THIS ONE IS for Milton Allen, who took the most hurtful shots and kept going with his glasses perched atop his bald head and his cigar hovering like a baton and his faith in the law intact.

He was Baltimore's first African-American state's attorney, and this is only the headline stuff. He was a civilized man in an uncivilized time, and a grownup in a time when people sometimes screamed at each other like children. He could have been bitter but never gave in. He should have been state's attorney longer but nursed his wounds and moved on.

In a time when black people were still denied the basics of fair play, including a first-rate education, he grabbed what he could: the written word. He read everything he could find. He went to Douglass High, where he played third-string fullback on the football team and haunted the library and went to Coppin State College to become a teacher.

"Simple reason," he said one day. "Teaching was about the only thing open to blacks then."

The year was 1935. When World War II arrived, he joined the Navy. Stationed at the Great Lakes training center, he found a wider vision of America: black college graduates from all over the country, doctors and lawyers, people who refused to be limited by segregation. It changed his horizons.

But he also learned how deeply racism was entrenched. More than three decades later, sitting in his judicial chambers at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, he remembered black people in the military hitting a wall.

"I never became bitter," he said. "But I don't know of any of us who went much beyond seaman first class," which is what the Navy calls a private first class. He shipped out to Hawaii, organized an educational program that became a model for training programs in the Pacific, returned to Baltimore and went to law school on the GI Bill.

So began a career that made him one of the city's busiest criminal defense attorneys, its first black state's attorney, the fifth black ever sworn onto the city's old Supreme Bench (and the fourth from the firm that he and some law school classmates started after the war) and a Juvenile Court judge who tried not to despair over the future of troubled young people.

It ended last week when Allen, at 85, died of cardiac arrest at his home in Windsor Hills.

So this one is for Milton Allen, who gave us better than he got. He became state's attorney when a lot of people thought he couldn't win and a lot more people whispered it would change the nature of justice in Baltimore. They whispered that a black man couldn't handle the job. They whispered that he'd gotten too close to too many criminals he had represented. It was all baloney. It was people whose careers were tied to the old ways and were trying to hold back the future.

They also said he wasn't political enough. It was more baloney. He'd sued the city to desegregate "public" tennis courts at Druid Hill Park and defended people who lost their jobs for attending public meetings where speakers included communist sympathizers. This was America, he said; we believe in free speech. And he sued the state to open "public" colleges to blacks.

He was state's attorney in the post-1968-riot years when the city was still nursing its wounds. He did what he said he would: ignore color and prosecute each case according to the facts. In this simple act, he became a role model, not just for lawyers -- many of whom considered him a father figure -- but for a city just beginning to learn that black people could handle the same jobs as whites, that we'd crushed so many people's talents for so many generations.

When he ran for re-election and lost, he blamed himself. He ran against Bill Swisher, a low-profile attorney who was political boss Jack Pollack's last hurrah. Allen took Swisher too lightly. He put his trust in the wrong people. For years, he called the loss the biggest disappointment of his life.

But he moved on. He became a respected judge on what would become the city's Circuit Court. Then, sitting in Juvenile Court, he had his heart broken all over again. He watched the parade of children march through his courtroom and feared for the future.

"These kids," he said one day in his chambers. "They have no home training, and so they live by their own rules. In 16 months, I think I've had maybe six cases where both the mother and father were living at home. In a lot of cases, there has never been a father in the house. People think juvenile crime is a bunch of kids stealing hubcaps, but it's really kids carrying big .357 Magnums."

He saw the future arriving, and it scared him. He was ahead of his time. All his life, he asked for nothing more than fairness. He gave better than he got. This one is for Milton Allen, who helped a city over the rough spots while he could.

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