City Paper is not for tourists
When civil rights crusader Donald Temple marches, it’s into a courtroom.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
If it weren’t for Sister Lapia and Brother Love, Donald Temple might have ended up as Father Temple, parish priest. That would have been an unusual career choice for an African-American Catholic boy from inner-city Philadelphia in the 1960s. But perhaps no more unusual than the career Temple actually chose, as the most successful civil rights crusader you’ve probably never heard of.
As a kid, Temple wanted to be like Father William Finley at Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Church. Everyone in North Philadelphia, Catholic or not, knew Finley, a young priest with a warm smile, for his compassion and his dedication to helping the community. Temple, an altar boy like both of his brothers, served Mass for Finley at least once a week. His favorite saints were St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and St. Dominic Savio, the patron of youth and the falsely accused.
But not everyone Temple came across during the course of his parochial-school education inspired in him the same devotion as Finley. “If the church ever had to rely on the niggers,” Sister Lapia, his eighth-grade teacher, told Temple’s class one day, “then the church would have to close its doors.”
And when young men from the neighborhood began returning home from Vietnam in caskets, Temple asked Brother Love, his religion teacher at Bishop Newman High School, “How can God stand to let men kill each other simply because they are different?” Though Love was quick to greet students with the back of his hand for being late to class, he was also a provocative thinker, so Temple was expecting wise words on the nature of evil and the sins of war. Instead, Love’s reply was stern and curt: “God understands.”
These were jarring discoveries for a serious, thoughtful young manthat nuns could say outrageously racist things, that religion teachers did not have all the answers. And they caused Temple to question his Catholic faith. Meanwhile, outside the church’s doors, the struggle for civil rights was raging in North Philadelphia. Soon saints gave way to Supreme Court justices in Temple’s consciousness; he went from dreaming of life as a cleric to life as a law clerk.
Today, Temple, 47, is one of a small group of lawyers in D.C. who specialize in race-discrimination cases, cases that few other independent lawyers or large firms are willing to take on and that few judges have much patience for. Temple, for example, took the Prince George’s County police department to court over allegations of excessive force long before the Sept. 1 shooting of Howard University student Prince Jones by an undercover Prince George’s County narcotics officera shooting that is currently under investigation.
Temple is also the force behind a recent racial-profiling lawsuit on behalf of a black Arlington cop and a black FBI agent who say they were victimized by the D.C. and Prince George’s County police. He’s also representing several black managers who have accused their employer, a company that oversees $16 billion in government pensions, of denying them promotions because of their race.
But Temple is best known for winning a $1 million settlement in 1997 against the retail clothing chain Eddie Bauer. In October 1996, a uniformed, off-duty Prince George’s County police officer working as a temporary security guard at a Fort Washington, Md., Eddie Bauer outlet sent Temple’s client, Alonzo Jackson, then 16, home without his shirt after the guard suspected Jackson of stealing it. “[The incident] epitomizes the dehumanization and stereotyping of young blacks in particular and African-Americans in general,” Temple said at a press conference announcing the suit. “At some point, these retail giants need to stop treating black people like it’s 1857.”
Temple didn’t always sound like an activist. His first job in Washington was on Capitol Hill. He launched organizations such as the D.C. chapter of Concerned Black Men, a group of professional men who mentor disadvantaged boys. He also ran unsuccessfully for D.C. delegate to Congress, in 1990. But his experiences in politics and government, in particular as chair of the District’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which looked into complaints of police misconduct from 1982 to 1995, left him disillusioned with the mainstream political process. And he has long criticized the approaches of traditional civil rights institutions as out of date and ineffective. He contends, for example, that protests like last month’s “Redeem the Dream” rally no longer have the power to shape public opinion and policy. But a multi-million-dollar discrimination judgment against a major corporation just might.
Temple says he wants not only to win cases for individual clients, but also to change entire institutions, through what he calls “agitation litigation.” He’s joined a growing number of litigators across the country, such as the state attorneys general and trial lawyers who have taken on the tobacco industry, who are seeking political ends through the courts. In recent years, the scrappy, smooth-talking attorney has represented African-American clients who have been kicked off airplanes, bitten by police dogs, and strip-searched at supermarkets, in addition to going up against such major corporations as the Gap and American Airlines.
Few of Temple’s cases are the stuff of landmark civil rights battles like Brown vs. Board of Education, nor do they result in the same wide-reaching impacts. Many of the major civil rights battles have already been won, after all, at least in the realm of legislation.
But racial discrimination has hardly vanished from the American landscape; it’s simply become less obvious, less institutionalized. Whether Temple’s incremental brand of legal activism will have a long-lasting impact is unknown. But for the victims of discrimination who come to him seeking redress, the lawsuits he files, at the very least, vindicate a sense of dignity that is eroded daily, whether by the side of the road or at the shopping mall.
“‘Boy.’ ‘Black baboon.’ Ain’t nothin’ nice about any of these terms, Your Honor.”
Temple is arguing before U.S. Magistrate Judge William Connelly in the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt, Md. It’s the second day of trial. The jury is gone. Only the lawyers and Sharon ReevesTemple’s clientremain. Reeves is suing her former employer, Southern Management Co., a real estate management company in Vienna, Va., for employment discrimination. In her complaint, Reeves contends that Southern Management President Ron Frank promised her a promotion if she reduced the vacancy rates at the apartment buildings that she was managing. Reeves did so, but Frank didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, the lawsuit alleges. When Frank, who is white, fired Reeves, who is black, she accused the company of racial bias. Then Frank quickly backtracked and rehired her, with new promises of a promotion.
But, Reeves contends, her situation did not improve. She alleges that she received fewer benefits than a white female manager of another property and that her new white male supervisor terrorized her, threatening to fire her “black ass.” She quit in 1996 and filed the suit in 1998, seeking back pay and $250,000 in damages.
Just a day before, Temple and his co-counsel, Edith Jackson, discovered that in a deposition he had given in an unrelated case, Frank was asked whether calling an employee a “black baboon” violated the company’s anti-discrimination policies. Frank replied no. Temple is now asking the judge to let him introduce Frank’s response in Reeves’ case.
“This case is already inflamed,” argues Steve Sylvester, the lawyer for Southern Management.
“[The statement] is scathing evidence of his state of mind,” Temple protests.
The judge ultimately rules against Temple, but a few days later, Southern Management agrees to settle the case anyway under confidential terms. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on the case to the Washington City Paper.
The statement in the deposition that Temple and Jackson sought to admit to the case was small, but scarcely tangential. Changes in federal law over the past decade require plaintiffs in some cases to prove that the defendants meant to discriminate against them. Under the 1991 amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.”
“Proving a state of mind, an intent to discriminate, requires a lot of evidence and a lot of witnesses testifying to something that is abstract,” notes John Davis, a Washington attorney who ran an employment-discrimination clinic at Howard University Law School in the early ’80s. Many judges are quick to throw out race-discrimination cases, notes Davis, unless the evidence is especially strong. “The courts are almost hostile to civil rights cases,” he says.
Judges may be less likely to hear race-discrimination claims because they have been inundated by newer types of civil rights claims, such as sexual harassment and disability-rights cases. In the eyes of some judges, certain civil rights attorneys suspect, racial discrimination cases are becoming old hat. Yet the demand for courts to hear such claims hasn’t diminished. “The days when we thought discrimination would just whither away are gone,” notes Lois Williams, senior counsel for litigation for the D.C. Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. “The character of the cases may change. The discrimination may get more subtle. But the number of cases never abates.”
She and other civil rights lawyers complain that courts dismiss complaints for philosophical reasons as well. The federal bench, they point out, is now filled with conservative Reagan- and Bush-era appointees who construe constitutional issues more strictly and are less friendly toward race-discrimination claims. Temple saw the difference such appointments can make in 1997, when he represented three employees of Payless Shoes who alleged that they had been denied promotions because they were black. One man lived in Maryland; the other two lived in the District. Maryland is part of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and home to some of the most conservative judges in the country; the case there was quickly thrown out on summary judgment. But in the District, which has its own human rights statute and judges who are more sympathetic to race-discrimination claims, Payless settled the case for a confidential amount.
But Temple has also pursued claims in which the facts are not so black-and-white. Consider one of Temple’s current suits, filed by Neville Gibbs, a black neurologist, against American Airlines: In 1998, Gibbs was on a flight set to take off for the Caribbean when he overheard a black flight attendant, who was griping about her long day, comment that black people didn’t know how to behave. When Gibbs objected, the two exchanged words. The flight attendant complained to her supervisor and the captain, who then taxied the plane back to the gate, where police escorted Gibbs off the aircraft. Temple admits that the fact that the flight attendant is black makes proving intentional racial bias hard. But, he argues, “the white purser and the white captain had ultimate authority.”
A jury might have trouble buying the notion that Gibbs suffered racial discrimination, but in all likelihood, Temple won’t have to face one. Though they may arrive kicking and screaming at the negotiating table, most companies would rather settle a discrimination suit quietly than endure a public trial. In fact, Temple’s battles are largely confined to mediation rooms. As a result, many of his biggest victories are hidden away in confidential settlement agreements, and the vanquished frequently walk away without having to publicly admit any guilt.
By agreeing not to disclose many of his settlements, Temple is surprisingly out of step with other civil rights lawyers, who believe publicizing the outcomes of their cases can be just as important as winning. “Judgments can have a prophylactic effect, not just on the defendant, but on the world,” says Williams.
Temple himself has seen the effects of his high-profile settlement with Eddie Bauer. “When I do consumer racism cases, in the training materials for the companies I’m suing, I see references to cases I’ve litigated. These cases sensitize people around the country,” he notes.
But Temple doesn’t see the need to draw public attention to every case. “I’m not some mad goddamn lawyer who throws bombs every time I see someone do something bad to a black person,” he says. “In most cases, the first approach is to try and get them resolved peacefully and respectfully. In some cases, people are very patronizing and arrogant and insensitive. Then it becomes a battle.”
Temple has a vision of himself that you wouldn’t expect from someone so earnest. In the future, he sees himself transforming the law not as some Marcus Garvey figure for the 21st century, or even a latter-day Thurgood Marshall. No, Temple sees himself bringing everyday legal battles to life as a Hollywood screenwriter.
“I’m totally serious,” he insists. “Why not? There is more drama in my office every day than in one month on The Practice.”
In the movie version of Temple Law Offices P.C., however, there will be one element of realism that most legal dramas leave out: debt. Not the routine credit-card kind, but, as Temple puts it, “six-figure, law-firm debt.”
“We’re no Civil Action. We’re a Civil Rights Action. Nobody is giving us nothin’!” Temple quips, comparing his small firm to the one in the 1999 John Travolta film about Jan Schlictmann, a young lawyer who risks everything to bring a lawsuit against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co., whose subsidiaries were allegedly responsible for polluting the water source of a small Massachusetts town.
In the movie, based on Jonathan Harr’s book of the same name, Schlictmann repeatedly turns to a local bank executive to plead for money to cover the costs of the case. Temple scoffs at such a fantasy. He says he’s “borrowed, hedged, and hustled” to finance cases. “We are running out of money every day. There have been many months where I have not known where the next dollar is coming from,” he says. “The hell with cases. I’m talking money for rent, the phone. I’m talking eatin’ money.”
Sometimes paying the rent on his downtown office means that Temple takes unexpected cases that seem out of character. In addition to race-discrimination cases, the firm handles a lot of sexual harassment cases, and usually it represents women who claim to have been victims. In at least one case, however, Temple is on the other side: Temple and Senior Counsel Jeanett Henry are representing Dr. Kevin Alexander, an OB-GYN and, until recently, an assistant professor at the Howard University College of Medicine. Alexander is being sued by Urelaine Simon, a medical resident whom Alexander supervised two years ago.
According to court records, Simon accuses Alexander of, among other things, offering to give her a pelvic exam and asking her what her genitals look like. Alexander is also the target of a sexual harassment suit by another former resident, Sherice Young. For the time being, the university has relieved Alexander of his teaching and administrative duties, and has not renewed his part-time faculty appointment. Alexander is counter-suing Simon, claiming, among other things, that Simon conspired with other residents to have him fired from his job.
When asked why his firm is in the unaccustomed position of representing the defendant in a sexual harassment case, Temple has a straightforward reply: “Sometimes a struggling firm has to take cases to eat.”
“You have to take these cases on a contingency basis,” explains Washington attorney and former D.C. Police Officer Ted Williams, who has tried cases with Temple. Williams is currently representing the family of Prince Jones. “If you’re competent and know what you’re doing and do not file frivolous lawsuits, you can live to eat another day.”
But “to specialize in civil rights cases requires a very busy practice,” notes Lois Williams. “You live on the proceeds of one while you work on another. And plaintiffs don’t usually have much money. It’s a rare individual who suffers discrimination who has those kinds of resources.”
Despite Temple’s griping, he wins or settles many of his cases. In fact, his record makes him one of the most successful civil rights attorneys in town. Since starting out six years ago, Temple has expanded his practice to include five lawyers. On top of his own full caseload, he has been known to drop everything to make time, for example, to help a college friend save her home from foreclosure. He also recently argued a case in Small Claims Court for the daughter of an elderly woman he met at the dry cleaner.
Temple is, as one friend put it, “a compulsive organizer.” In 1972, during his sophomore year at Howard University, he started a nontraditional coeducational fraternity with a service bent, called Ubiquity, which still exists. During law school at the University of Santa Clara, he organized rallies protesting the 1978 Bakke decision, in which the Supreme Court threw out the use of racial quotas in hiring and school admission. In the early ’80s, Temple successfully launched a political action committee, founded the Washington Chapter of Concerned Black Men, and started a group for minority congressional staffers. But he has not always been the best manager. “I was a politician who started taking cases,” he says.
Nor have all of his clients been satisfied with his work. In 1996, Temple agreed to represent a woman who claimed that she’d been denied a job at the Federal Trade Commission. The woman lost her case and promptly sued Temple and his firm for allegedly conspiring with various boards and commissions to deny her due process. She also filed a complaint against Temple with the Office of Bar Counsel.
A judge dismissed the woman’s suit against Temple, finding no grounds to substantiate the complaints, whereupon she refiled her lawsuit under another section of the law; the new case is pending. The Office of Bar Counsel, meanwhile, faulted Temple for failing to write a formal retainer agreement with the woman, but did not endorse her other complaints.
Some of Temple’s business decisions have gone poorly as well. Outside of his practice, Temple has tried his hand at investing in well-intentioned but money-losing projects. In 1996, Temple signed on to be a guarantor for a loan for KSJ Development Co. of Louisiana, which was supposed to help small minority businesses make or increase investments. But one of the KSJ’s projects, a minority-owned hotel in New Orleans, didn’t take off, and the guarantors had to pay off the loan. Temple turned over his stock in the venture to cover his share.
A few years earlier, in 1989, Temple had started a newspaper, Black Networking News, with three journalist friends. But there were several other black newspapers in Washington at the time, and the enterprise couldn’t muster the advertising revenue it needed. It folded after a year and a half. All four partners lost money, but there were no regrets. “I would lose my money all over again,” says Paul Ruffins, one of Temple’s partners in the venture and a Washington City Paper contributor.
“Everything I learned, I learned flat on my face,” Temple notes.
In spite of such setbacks, Temple has managed to rebound, mainly by working maniacally, often 60 to 70 hours a week. He lives comfortably, but not lavishly. For the past 13 years, he’s made his home off upper 16th Street, in Shepherd Park, with his wife, Vonterris Temple, an HIV/AIDS research nurse, their two middle-school-aged daughters, Cairo and Imani, and their dog. His neighbors include D.C. Superior Court Judge Rhonda Reid-Winston and former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
After a power walk with his neighbors among the winding streets, elegant houses, and lush greenery of Parkside Drive one misty weekday morning in July, Temple surveys his street. “I’m way beyond where a boy from North Philly would have expected to end up,” he says.
We’re going to die, thought James “Larry” Grant. He and Donald Temple were in a boys’ bathroom in Dobbins High School, standing back to back. Circling them were about 20 guys. When Grant and Temple weren’t fighting off blows, they could feel the sting of the lit cigarettes their tormentors gleefully pressed against them.
It was the spring of 1970. The two had come to Dobbins to put up posters advertising a party for Gamma Alpha Beta, the social club to which they both belonged. A group of boys in the cafeteria mistook Donald for his older brother, Joey Temple. Joey had ticked off some Dobbins students a few days before, and they couldn’t pass up the chance to settle the score. Ignoring Donald’s protests of mistaken identity, the Dobbins crew offered him and his friend two options: come to the bathroom and fight one on one, or prepare to be jumped.
As Grant and Temple stood there, wondering how they were ever going to leave Dobbins alive, salvation arrived in the form of a football player who had gone to elementary school with them. He broke up the fight, and Temple lived to give his brother an earful.
Run-ins such as the one at Dobbins were rare for Temple. Gangs surrounded him, but so did family and friends. By the time Temple was born, in 1953, the second child of Joe and Ursula Temple, his family had lived in the Strawberry Mansion section of town for five generations.
Joe Temple, a former boxer, was handsome, ferocious, and street-smart. He worked during the day for the Philadelphia Gas Works, at night as a bartender. Ursula Temple, warm, witty, and a devout Catholic, was an administrator at the city morgue. The family moved several times, but they always stayed in North Philly, close to their relatives and close to their church, Most Precious Blood of Our Lord, or “Blood,” as Temple calls it.
When they were kids, brother Joey, now the host of his own radio talk show in Philadelphia, regularly got into skirmishes. “[Joey] was mean. He kicked butts. He kept the wolves away from the other five [Temple] children,” says Charles Patton, the kids’ uncle and a retired Philadelphia police officer. Donald Temple still had to learn how to use his fists. When boys on the block weren’t shooting hoops, playing stickball, or firing slingshots, they boxed. But he managed to stay above the fray without having to fight much.
Temple’s greatest source of protection wasn’t his right hook or his brother, but his status as a striver. The drug trade hadn’t yet overrun North Philly in the late ’60s, and a gang wasn’t the only affiliation that carried currency on the street. At 16, Temple joined Gamma Alpha Beta, one of the most popular of the scores of social clubs for boys and girls that flourished around the city. James Grant was also a member. “Gamma had a wide-reaching reputation. We were gentlemen. We weren’t no punks,” Grant says. “We had other agendas. When people realize that you are someone who is spearheading alternatives to gangs, that gets you a lot of respect.”
Temple also soughtand earnedthe respect of grown-ups. Besides his father, with whom he lived after his parents split when he was in high school, Temple had no shortage of people to look out for him and to look up to. He routinely talked politics with Grant’s father, Vernon Marks, a bail bondsman who sprang civil rights activists from jail and later worked for the city council. There was also Uncle Charlie, the police officer, another uncle who was a precinct captain, and another who later became the deputy fire chief.
And then there was Cecil B. Moore.
Behind Temple’s desk in his office near Metro Center hang two framed photographs of Moore, the former head of the NAACP in Philadelphia. One photo is with Adam Clayton Powell Jr., former U.S. congressman from New York, and the other is with Malcolm X. “Malcolm was honored to be in his presence,” Temple is quick to point out. “Idolize” doesn’t begin to describe how Temple and his brother Joey feel about Moore. In 1986, the two brothers organized a successful effort to rename part of Columbia Avenue in their old neighborhood after Moore. For several years, they held annual memorial events for Moore, which attracted local black officials, including City Councilmember John Street, now mayor of Philadelphia.
“Cecil is the kind of guy who would show up at the bar convention in a silk suit, clean as the Board of Health, with a woman on both arms,” Temple notes wryly. But it was Moore’s fearlessness, not his flamboyance, that appealed to Temple. Moore was, as Temple puts it, “a consummate hell-raiser.”
When, in 1964, the city began building Strawberry Mansion High School and refused to hire men from the neighborhood at the construction site because they were black, Moore organized protests at the site. Temple, then only 11, made signs and organized a group of boys to participate in the picket.
Moore’s most famous fight was over Girard College, a private boarding school. Founded for underprivileged white boys, the school refused to accept blacks. In 1965, Moore protested against the school for months. Many in the black community joined in, including Temple’s parents. In 1968, the Supreme Court overturned the school’s whites-only policy.
Temple also witnessed one of the rare occasions when Moore’s influence failed: the 1964 Philadelphia riot. The unrest started when the car of a black couple, Rush and Odessa Bradford, stalled in an intersection in North Philadelphia. Two police officers, one black and one white, tried to move the car and got into an argument with Odessa Bradford. They arrested her on assault charges. But bystanders tried to pry her away from the officers, and scuffling turned into a brawl, then a riot. Rioters overturned a police car, set a taxi on fire, and looted stores.
Temple remembers looking out his window and seeing people carrying merchandise down the street. Those who tried to calm the rioters, including Moore, were met with bottles and bricks. The riots lasted until the next day and began to subside only after local leaders resorted to driving Odessa Bradford in a convertible to show everyone that she hadn’t been harmed. Police moved in and “marched through the neighborhood like soldiers,” Temple’s cousin James Croxton recalls. “They went into homes and harassed people who weren’t even involved.” In the end, 150 people were injured and 160 were arrested.
The Jewish delis in the neighborhood where Temple and his friends would go to get corned beef hoagies never reopened. His Russian Jewish neighbors moved away. “It seemed like the whole neighborhood had been robbed,” recalls Melzonia Dingle, who lived near the Temples.
“A lot of people moved to New Jersey. The middle-class moved to Mount Airy. Only the poor were left struggling, with no opportunity to get better jobs,” says Grant.
Temple left, too. He set out for Howard in 1971, determined to follow in Moore’s footsteps. “Everyone thought he would be the first black mayor of Philadelphia,” says his younger brother Mark. “But he never came back home.”
On a chilly evening in March 1991, Temple sat alone in the back of a police car wondering what kind of mess he’d gotten himself into. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He wasn’t under arrest. But he was the chair of the CCRB, the agency in charge of investigating complaints of police misconduct.
The day before, two officers had testified in front of the board about their treatment of Patrick Wells. Wells had been picked up on drug charges in July 1989 at a playground in Northwest Washington. He claimed that police had cuffed him, put him in the trunk of their patrol car, and then driven around for 20 minutes. “The hearing was fraught with unbelievable emotion and tension. Things were raw,” recalls Gabe Chikes, who served as the assistant to CCRB Executive Director Alfreda Davis Porter.
Anonymous threats to several key players in the case soon followed, and the police were convinced that Temple was in danger. Temple, however, didn’t take any of the threats seriously until the police arrived at his office at the Reeves Center on U Street to drive him home. Along the way, the officers pulled up on Pennsylvania Avenue and left the car. Temple sat alone, thinking, Man, this is bullshit! The police put a threat on me and now I’m sitting in the back of a police car!
But it turned out that he had nothing to fear. The officers delivered him safely home. (Coincidentally, Temple last month sued one of the officers Wells had complained about for harassing the off-duty Arlington cop.)
The chairmanship of the CCRB was the first and only public office Temple has ever held. It was both the high- and low-water mark of a career in politics that Temple had pursued ever since he ran for class president the first week he arrived at Howard. After marrying a fellow Howard alum in 1978the couple divorced, and Temple remarried in 1985he took a job on Capitol Hill, eventually becoming senior staff attorney for the House District of Columbia Committee. He worked closely with District officials, especially Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.’s staff. Temple also volunteered on the campaigns of black candidates, including that of law school roommate Mike Espy in a 1986 congressional race in Mississippi. Then, in 1990, Temple threw his own hat in the ring: A virtual unknown, he jumped into a six-way race for D.C. delegate to Congress.
From May through September, from 6 a.m. until well into the evening, Temple made his way through the District. He shook hands at Metro stops, dropped by car-inspection stations, walked in parades, and visited senior citizens. But, although he had come from a neighborhood not unlike many neighborhoods in Southeast and Northeast Washington, his supporters consisted largely of young black professionals. “The buppies knew me, but not the people,” he notes. He won only 6 percent of the vote. Ironically, right after his defeat, he received a wave of press attention as one of the lawyers for the hundreds of students who took over the University of the District of Columbia administration building for 11 days.
Then Barry called in December with a job offer. Despite the fact that Temple had criticized Barry in Black Networking News, the two were on good terms. During the scandal over Barry’s crack-cocaine arrest, Temple even met with the mayor several times to offer him advice, “personal, brother to brother.” Barry says he doesn’t remember what Temple said. Regardless, the mayor thought enough of Temple at the time to draft him for the tough assignment of CCRB chair.
Before Temple arrived, the board, one of the first of its kind in the country, was embroiled in internecine battles. “You had parties that were absolutely at each other. He worked hard to achieve an atmosphere in which people didn’t have to like each other but they had to respect the process,” notes Chikes.
Board members, including police representatives, credit Temple with making the CCRB less contentious. “We disagreed at times, but we forged a relationship of mutual respect,” says 1st District Cmdr. Kim Dine, who represented the chief of police on the board for three years.
But Temple’s frequent pro-citizen stance angered others. “I agreed with him in about 70 percent of the cases,” says Cosby Washington, a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) representative who sat on the CCRB. “But 30 percent of the cases fell into a gray area.” In those situations, Temple had a tendency to “go off on philosophical tangents,” says Washington. “He’d talk about the past wrongs of the police throughout the country, the brutalization of citizens. I could see him beating that drum. I’d say, ‘Let’s deal with what happened here. Let’s not mushroom the situation.’”
“Washington saw gray where I didn’t see gray,” counters Temple. But Washington was an ally compared with the FOP representatives who defended officers at hearings. “They were obstructionist,” recalls Temple.
“If ‘obstructionist’ means we insisted on a full record or protecting the rights of the accused officer, then we were obstructionist,” says former FOP President Gary Hankins. “[The CCRB] would schedule hearings for cases that we didn’t believe [had] even minimum standards for being sustainable. It ended up with a backlog for years. If you believe justice delayed is justice denied, then justice was denied.”
The backlog of 1,000 cases that Temple inherited, some as old as six years, was his biggest headache during his four-year stint as chair. The board, which heard three types of casesoffensive language, excessive force, and harassmentcould take as long as two years to dispose of a case. The backlog left citizens about as happy as the police. Those who made complaints didn’t like the fact that the accused officers stayed on the streets while the board processed their complaints.
Temple insists that the board exercised discretion to weed out frivolous complaints. He also successfully lobbied Barry and D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Chair Wilhemina Rolark to triple the size of the board and later to offer alternative forms of mediation, so that not every case had to go through a hearing. But the CCRB’s budget grew more quickly than its backlog shrank. Temple quit at the end of 1993, a few months before the D.C. Council voted to abolish it. (A new CCRB is in the works.) When the CCRB closed its doors, it still had 770 complaints before it.
More than any losing campaign, the CCRB soured Temple on public office. “I’ve lost confidence in the political system as to whether or not what needs to happen in terms of change happens quick enough,” Temple says.
Temple says he hasn’t completely ruled out running for office in the future, but he doubts that he will. “In politics, people compromise too much. The law requires no compromise, and it’s more fruitful,” he says. “I call what I do the fourth branch of government. You can do more for change through the courts than you can legislatively.”
Temple walks briskly, head down, like a bullet with legs. In the courthouse or on the street, he says hello to nearly everyone he passes, whether he knows the person or not. Tonight, however, he is distracted. As usual, he is juggling lofty tasks with more mundane ones.
“Stay at three! They’ll come around,” Temple yells into his cell phone. It’s a hot and humid evening at the end of July. Temple is getting off an elevator on the 12th floor of Georgetown University Law Center’s Gerwirz Student Center. He works his way through a crowd of young people, stopping to hug some of them, holding the phone to his ear.
Out in Seattle, his co-counsel, Stan Tate, is close to a settlement with lawyers for Eddie Bauer. Temple is suing the companyagainthis time on behalf of a Manila manufacturer who claims that the clothing giant took his product, sold it, and then didn’t pay for it. “If we have to take a hit on legal, that’s OK,” Temple says into the phone as he takes a seat in the corner. “I have to cut the conversation short, because I’m in a conference. Stay firm, Stan! Peace.”
The people standing nearby don’t pay him any mind. They know Temple. They’re his students from the Charles Hamilton Houston Preparatory Law Institute, which he founded 20 years ago to train minority college students and recent graduates for law school. Tonight they’re celebrating the end of the program.
To Temple, these 20-somethings, whom he was berating only a few weeks ago for chewing gum in class, may turn out to be the new blood that he says the civil rights movement so badly needs. But when he throws around terms such as “old” and “new,” he is clearly talking less about chronological age than a state of mind. At 47, he’s about the same age as Kweisi Mfume, the current president of the NAACP, but he still doesn’t consider himself a member of the “old guard.”
“Obviously, I embrace the contributions of the civil rights movement. What I don’t like is its leaders’ traditional, antiquated analysis. They duplicate what they’ve done over the years, and the wheels aren’t turning,” Temple says. “Doing things to protest is cool, but you have to have protests plus new ways to use money and resources. We need to change the mind-sets, the habitshow black Americans see themselves, how they spend their money, what they get in return, how they develop ownership.”
The ideal of transforming cultures, institutions, and self is the message Temple hopes to impart to his students as he steps up to the podium to introduce Eric Broyles, the evening’s featured speaker. Broyles is senior counsel for America Online Inc.
“Here is how you connect with your vision,” Broyles declares, before launching into the story of how he went from juvenile delinquent to hi-tech attorney and business owner. He describes how he made his way through college selling garage doors during the day and studying late into the night. Phrases such as “And God put a vision in my heart and told me, ‘Go to that man and tell him you have to be a sales rep’” are dramatically accompanied by thunder in the distance. After attending the University of Virginia School of Law and clerking for a federal judge, Broyles reunited with his old boss, the owner of the garage door company, who was coincidentally looking to retire. “I now own Salem Door Manufacturing,” Broyles announces proudly, as the audience cheers and the sky pulsates with lightning.
It isn’t Temple’s story, but the themes of self-improvement, gumption, and entrepreneurship rise are vintage Temple. Taking his place at the microphone for the night’s final speech, he tries to keep the inspirational feeling going. As he speaks, he sounds like the priest he might have been:
“But for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments [ratified between 1865 and 1870, which outlawed slavery and gave African-Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law]…Dred Scott would be the law of the land,” he says, referring to the 1857 Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that slaves and their descendants were not U.S. citizens. “The United States would not look like what it does today in the year 2000,” he continues, his voice rising in steady crescendo. “And we would not be here in our current capa”
He stops, interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone inside his jacket. He fumbles for a second, pulls out the offending gadget, and tosses it to one of his assistants, who takes it out of the room.
“There are a lot of young brothers in the ‘hood with holes in their shoes and hats on backwards that are smarter than everyone in this room, if given the opportunity,” Temple begins again, a bit wearily. “I pray you achieve your goals in patent law, corporate law. I pray you think of the collective side of the equation as well. We all have an obligation to do something to change the world order.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.