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Originally published Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life": A catalyst for civil-rights change in Washington

Journalist Jim Kershner's well-written biography "Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life" shows that the pioneering African-American attorney was a spark plug for social change in Eastern Washington.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jim Kershner

The author of "Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life" will discuss his book this week at these locations: 6 p.m. Monday at the University Book Store's Tacoma branch (253-272-8080; www.ubookstore.com); and 6 p.m. Thursday at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle (206-518-6000; www.naamnw.org).

"Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life"

by Jim Kershner

University of Washington Press, 264 pp., $28.95

Imagine a black man from Eastern Washington running for U.S. Senate and accusing the sitting Democratic senator of being "a short, fat, white Republican masquerading as a Democrat." In 1970, Carl Maxey said that about Sen. Henry Jackson.

Jackson was a "hawk" on Vietnam. Maxey was for a dovish exit from the war, pardoning draft evaders, ending the draft, reducing the military and giving every American an income guaranteed by the federal government. He was, in short, the champion of the left wing of his party.

He got 13 percent of the vote. As a political candidate — for Senate, for state representative, for justice of the peace — he was a dud. In 1997 he ended his life by suicide, believing he had not accomplished enough. But as Jim Kershner of the Spokane Spokesman-Review shows in this well-written biography, Maxey was a spark plug for social change in Eastern Washington.

As a university student in 1948, he was a pioneer of interracial marriage — an event that was illegal in his white wife's home state of Oregon. He was the first African-American graduate of Gonzaga's School of Law. As Spokane's first black attorney, he pushed the Spokane Schools to hire their first black teacher and for all races to be served in restaurants, private clubs and barber shops.

Maxey made his living litigating divorce cases. He made his name providing legal representation in anti-establishment cases, becoming what Kershner calls Spokane's "unofficial lawyer for all things countercultural." On the west side of the state, he was an attorney for the Seattle Seven, a group of antiwar rioters who turned their trial into a mockery of the federal judge George Boldt.

Kershner's biography is sympathetic but not fawning: He portrays Maxey as sometimes bitter and unfairly harsh, but also compassionate, disciplined and utterly fearless. Maxey was not a scholar: He barely made it through law school and didn't like researching cases. But he was phenomenal in the courtroom.

Unfortunately, Kershner had only one good interview with Maxey and has had to make up for it by interviewing Maxey's wife, ex-wife and associates. Some of the big events, such as Maxey's Senate campaign or his civil-rights work in Mississippi, are told from a greater distance than a reader would like, because the author has had to rely heavily on other people's accounts.

Most fascinating in this account are Maxey's early years. At the outset of the Great Depression, his mother put him in a state orphanage for boys that was, unknown to her, run by sexual predators. He was later rescued from juvenile detention by a Catholic priest. Maxey never accepted the Roman rite — he became a Unitarian — but he thanked the priest and said he was "profoundly indebted to the discipline of a Jesuit education."

He was also a testament to the value of sports: He had a sports scholarship to Gonzaga and helped the college win an intercollegiate boxing championship in 1950.

Kershner uses the story of Maxey's life to show the barriers that African Americans faced in Spokane, even though the city was not in the South and could pride itself in having no segregation laws. Here is the story of how Louis Armstrong, in Spokane for a big concert in 1950, was refused a room at the swank Davenport Hotel, and how in 1956 a private club with a show by Sammy Davis Jr. refused to serve Maxey, even though he was accompanied by governor-elect Albert Rosellini.

The state has changed since then. This book is the story of one man who helped change it.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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