I didn’t know the Honorable William Cousins Jr.
But Cousins’ name was on my late father’s tongue whenever he pointed out what a “Negro” could achieve — despite Jim Crow.
Judge Cousins died Saturday at 90 years old.
As my colleague, Maureen O’Donnell, pointed out in an obituary honoring Cousins’ life, he graduated from Harvard law school, served in combat in the Korean War, became a prosecutor, an independent Chicago alderman, a Cook County Circuit court judge, and a judge of the Illinois appellate court.
It’s enough to make one’s head swim.
During Sunday service, my pastor gave a heartfelt tribute to Cousins as a Chicagoan who defied the odds.
You really have to be somebody for the pastor to work your name into his Sunday sermon.
Judge Cousins was born the same year as my mother, in a small town in Mississippi not far from the small town in Mississippi where my mother was born.
His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, before migrating to the city’s South Side.
He would have attended DuSable High School in 1940s when it was the proud and mighty Jean Baptiste Point DuSable and served an estimated 4,000 students.
Although black people undoubtedly were oppressed by the blatant racism of the time, the era also spawned a clear-eyed generation that embraced knowledge.
For those who escaped the harsh sharecropping life in the South, education was seen as the great equalizer. But racial injustice wasn’t just a factor in places like Mississippi and Alabama.
During Cousins’ enrollment at the University of Illinois in Champaign a group of students, faculty and local residents formed the “Student Community Interracial Committee.”
The organization was dedicated to fighting discrimination in the Champaign-Urbana area, and conducted several campaigns that forced local restaurants and theaters to end discriminatory practices.
There was, however, glimmers of hope for the black educated class.
In 1951, the year before Cousins graduated from Harvard, Ralph J. Bunche, officially a member of the Harvard University faculty, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Bunche was the first black person to receive the honor.
So while things were hard for the masses of black people — both in the South and in the North — there were African-Americans who were able to use their God-given talents to benefit their communities.
These were the adults that my own father held up constantly to his children. They were not entertainers, or comedians or athletes. They were men like Judge Cousins.
Cousins became the first black independent alderman in the 8th Ward.
“He represented an era in history for black people to break the stranglehold of the kind of politics that did not advance the interests of the African-American community,” said Conrad Worrill, a historian and emeritus director of the Jacob A. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University.
To put it in the vernacular of the day, Cousins was a “real good brother.”
“Not only was he a good brother, he was a smart brother. He never got too high on the hog to talk to anybody,” Worrill said.
Cousins was later elected a Cook County judge and became a judge of the Illinois appellate court before retiring from the bench.
Retired Appellate Judge Ann Claire Williams, the first African-American to sit on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, called Cousins an “extraordinary mentor.”
“He greeted me with open arms when I went on the District Court. He didn’t know me because I was never in the state court system, but he specifically reached out to me to see if he could help me in any way,” Williams said.
“Cousins was the one you could rely on to be in your corner and give sage advice. He was like a rock in the Chicago legal community, not only the African-American community, but the broader community. The other thingI would say is he was humble. He never let the robe get in the way of his humanity,” Williams added.
Cousins was a light for the next generation.