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Percy Julian: Farewell to a Giant

Originally published in The Capital Times.

Percy L. Julian Jr. was a Renaissance man: lawyer and activist, photographer, world traveler, gourmet cook, student of martial arts who applied the principles of Aikido to mediation. Lifelong teacher. A gentleman with a taste for the finer things in life.

And a s-l-o-w talker.

Family and colleagues and friends from his many spheres of interest gathered at Monona Terrace Convention Center on Friday to remember through laughter and tears a pioneering civil rights attorney who was perhaps better known outside his adopted hometown.

Julian, 67, died Feb. 24 after a stroke at his Madison home.

“I admired my brother’s passion for life, his single-mindedness and his tenacity,” Faith Julian told the group. “My brother was a realist, but he was also a dreamer.”

“He was small in stature, but he was a giant,” said Percy Thomas, executive director of National Fair Housing Training.

Thomas spoke of Julian’s professional generosity and his appreciation of fine dining. “He was top-shelf in every way.”

Julian’s dedication to civil rights was “formed in the crucible of racial justice,” remarked Ted Shaw, former director-counsel of the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as his boyhood home in Oak Park, Ill., was targeted for firebombing when his family became the first African-Americans to move into the Chicago suburb.

“He had a way in litigation of s-l-o-w-i-n-g everything down,” Shaw said. “There were times I wanted to finish his sentences for him, but gradually I understood what he was doing. In the heat of battle, lawyers can be uncivil. Percy was always civil. Percy was always a gentleman.”

Julian’s stepson, Kevin Blackmon, spoke of how that slow-talk way of cooling a confrontation used to drive him crazy. He spoke, too, of how greatly he appreciated the guidance he was given by a man who was, really, his father.

Reading from comments that he had added to the online forum that sprang from The Capital Times’ news report on Julian’s death, Blackmon thanked Julian for being there for his mother, Jan Blackmon. “I took comfort from the fact that she had him in her life,” he said.

Jeff Scott Olson, Julian’s longtime law partner, recalled how he wormed his way into a job at Julian’s firm as a new law school graduate.

He admonished those gathered not to delay in joining old friends in any of the pastimes of the sort he ought to have found time to do one last time with his multi-faceted friend, Percy Julian — especially, he said, if you’re going to host a party, where friends and family will gather to tell someone you value how much he means to them. “For heaven’s sake do it while he’s still alive to enjoy it,” Olson said.

A long career

Former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin told about he met Julian in 1968 when he and other UW-Madison students were looking for legal protection for their anti-war protest activities.

Julian asked them to put in $25 each to cover filing fees and copying costs, Soglin recalled. Soglin said he scrounged up the money and hurried to Julian’s office where the young attorney informed him that he was lead plaintiff in what would become a celebrated case. “Why me?” Soglin asked.

“You’re the only one who showed up with the $25,” Julian replied.

Only a few years older than the students he was representing, Julian had a gravitas beyond his years, as he launched his career as a civil rights attorney, Soglin said.

Quite a career it was.

Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and a neighbor of Julian’s, sketched how significant his cases had been.

In addition to the rights of students to challenge the University of Wisconsin, Julian took on the right of high school students to wear their hair long and the right of prisoners to wear crucifixes, Abrahamson told the group. The issues may not sound significant, but they were.

“Percy Julian made the public aware of the power of the government against the individual,” Abrahamson said. “He made a difference.”

When Julian was taking these cases, civil rights attorneys were shunned in many strata of society, she noted. “Percy Julian ticked off a lot of institutions,” she said.

Julian understood the promise of equality and the potential of a country premised on it, but also the ways in which our country historically has fallen short of its promise, Abrahamson said.

“His life was committed to making the tenets of justice on which our country was founded come true. And he leaves to us the unfinished business of ensuring equal justice under the law,” she said.

“Percy shall be missed. Shalom, my friend.”


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