Book Review:
Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life by Jim Kershner

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 9/08/2008
  • Essay 8766
University of Washington Press, 2008
Hard cover, 288 pages
24 illustrations, index, 6 x 9 inches.
ISBN: 978-0-295-98846-7

In Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life,’s own Jim Kershner chronicles the life one of Washington’s greatest treasures: civil rights activist and lawyer Carl Maxey. Kershner recounts Maxey’s Dickensian upbringing in Spokane orphanages, his years as both a Gonzaga University law student and NCAA champion boxer, and his profound influence on Washington state’s civil rights movement. After being abandoned by his adoptive parents, Maxey spent most of his childhood in orphanages, on the streets, and even in a juvenile hall, for it was the only county or private institution that would accept an abandoned black child. As a teenager, Maxey moved to the Coeur D’Alene Indian reservation to be enrolled in the Jesuit school there on the invitation of the Catholic mission’s leader, Cornelius E. Byrne, S.J. Under Fr. Byrne’s guidance, he blossomed into a promising student and athlete, which earned him scholarships to Spokane’s Gonzaga High School and later the Gonzaga School of Law.

In the early 1950s, Maxey became a local hero by winning the NCAA light heavyweight boxing championship and leading the underdog Gonzaga boxing team to a national victory. One year later, he became the first African American lawyer in Spokane. After passing the bar exam, Maxey also became Spokane’s first black professional, as there were no African American dentists, doctors, or teachers. Though his practice focused primarily on divorce cases, Maxey pledged that 20 percent of the cases he took would be pro-bono, mostly involving civil rights issues. In one of his first civil rights cases, Maxey successfully persuaded the Spokane School District to hire Eugene Breckenridge, a well-qualified teacher whom the board had rejected because he was black. Thanks to Maxey, Breckenridge became Spokane’s first African American teacher. Maxey went on to integrate Spokane’s restaurants, hotels, barbershops, and private clubs. During his long career, Maxey participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi with SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr., unsuccessfully challenged Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson for political office in 1970, and represented the unruly “Seattle Seven” in an anti-Vietnam protest trial. Kershner gracefully connects Maxey’s life and work as emblematic of one of the most turbulent periods in Washington history. In Kershner’s fascinating and engaging biography, Maxey comes alive as a dynamic force, both in the courtroom and in the ring.

By Catherine Hinchliff, September 8, 2008

Submitted: 9/08/2008

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