September 26, 1962:
On this day A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., becomes the first African American member of the Federal Trade Commission.
In 1962 President Kennedy appointed Higginbotham to the Federal Trade Commission making him the youngest and first African American to ever serve on a federal regulatory commission.
But this was not the only first that he accomplished. In 1964 Higginbotham was appointed the first African American Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by President Lyndon Johnson. By doing so, he became one of the youngest people ever appointed to a federal bench at the age of 35. Leon served as a mentor to numerous young attorneys, affording them the opportunity to gain critical exposure to the legal profession.
He was also very active in the fight for civil rights. Leon played an extraordinary role in the civil rights movement as an advisor to President Johnson after the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a member of the National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit where he remained for 16 years, serving as Chief Judge from 1989 until 1991 and as Senior Judge until his retirement in 1993. Upon retirement, Leon became the Public Service Jurisprudence Professor at Harvard University.
Among his many awards are the nation’s highest civilian award — the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) and the Spingarn Medal (1996). Judge Higginbotham also received the first Spirit of Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award in 1994 from the American Swedish Historical Museum on the basis of his advocacy on behalf of America’s children within the legal profession and his human rights efforts in South Africa. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law named its annual A. Leon Higginbotham Corporate Leadership Award after Judge Higginbotham. In addition to those aforementioned awards, he was also awarded honorary degrees from 62 different universities.
Judge Higginbotham was a life-long champion of individual rights liberties as an advocate, judge, and author. He died on December 14, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts, after suffering from a series of strokes. President Clinton described him as “one of our nation’s most passionate and steadfast advocates for civil rights.” Jesse Jackson said of Higginbotham, “[w]hat Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston were to the first half of this century, Judge Higginbotham was to the second half.” Kweisi Mfume said “[t]he world has lost one of its finest, most pre-eminent jurists of our times. His work is a reflection of both his deep passion for civil rights and his legendary pursuit of justice and equality for all Americans.”