NLG friend Judge Bruce M. Wright died at age 86 this past March. He was a significant figure in the heritage and history of our country not only as a jurist and attorney, but as a humanist intellectual, a poet, and a humorist, as the two volumes of his autobiography reveal ( Black Robes, White Justice, and Black Justice in a White World).
Wright became a New York City judge relatively late in his life, unexpectedly appointed by Mayor John Lindsay in l970. When Lindsay told him of his appointment, Wright, unbelievingly, replied that he couldn’t accept the judgeship because he did not have the money to pay for it. He was then 52 years old. He had been a published poet, a lawyer, a decorated WWII combat veteran, an Army deserter, a manager and advisor to jazz musicians, and an expatriate intellectual in Paris. He met Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, with whom he got drunk on scotch ending up in a French hospital with a bleeding ulcer. He worked on a magazine with Leopold Senghor, the future president of Senegal, with whom he remained a life-long friend. Like many black Americans, Bruce Wright found the City of Light less oppressive, deserting the Army on his way back to America from European combat, making the decision en route when a white officer looked at his medals and then looking straight at him said, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers to fight.” During the war From the Shaken Tower, a book of his poetry, was published in England and it was at that time also that he began his collaboration with Langston Hughes.
Returning stateside and moving to Harlem, where he lived for six decades, Wright knew Harlem renaissance artists Romaine Bearden, Charles Alson, and Aaron Douglas, whose murals of the African American experience decorate the Harlem library. Wright was closely associated with the post WWII jazz scene. The emergence of black nationalism in the northern ghettos in the l950s coincided and interrelated with revolution in black music called Bebop. The Beboppers were rebels, culturally and personally, if not overtly politically. They took jazz and stood it on its head, taking traditional “American classical music,” the great gift of black America to the world, and elevated it to new levels of complexity and beauty. Bruce Wright, a rebel himself, identified and associated with the new music at its birth and was a manager and business advisor to great artists including Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Mary Lou Williams, and Sonny Rollins.
Wright’s mother was Irish, one of l3 children, whose ancestors came from Ireland around l825, settling in Newark, New Jersey. Bruce was raised in Princeton in a loving home with a brother and sister. His father was black man from Monserrat, a Caribbean island from which he immigrated because “there was nothing to do except haul water to Antigua.” Wright remembered his mother as “a tall, handsome woman, jolly and a moderate drinker. she seemed to be at ease with the black neighbors among whom we always lived. “My father,” he recalled, “was five feet four inches tall, a pefectly reasonable height for a pacifist. A survivor of WWI, he preached to me from childhood the imagined virtues of imagined peace.” They were buried in a segregated cemetery, separated on the basis of race. “My mother and her old sister…are buried in the white section. My father lies in the same obscurity he knew in life, in the areas reserved for the black dead.”
Wright ran afoul of the New York City police and prosecutors when he refused to rubber stamp routinely high bail requests, which not only denied the accused the right to be free to help prepare their own defense but worked in practise as preventive detention. When he released an accused cop killer (latter acquitted) the Policemen’s Benevolent Association went ballistic. The tabloid press dubbed him “Turn ‘em Loose Bruce.”
A demonstration, built with the help of the Guild and Bruce’s friend Guild President Hal Mayerson was called in his defense. Hundreds gathered to support him in front of the downtown Municipal Building. When his judgeship was not renewed, he ran for the Civil Court from Harlem and won a ten-year term. Bruce was extremely popular among lawyers who appeared before him because of his intelligence and courtesy.
Bruce M. Wright was a well known figure in Harlem. The encomium that he liked best was given him the day a car knocked him off his bicycle, seriously injuring him. As Wright lay in the street, a passerby looked down at him and said, “Oh shit, its the judge.”
by Michael Steven Smith