by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & arl Maxey's life in a list: The first black attorney in Eastern Washington. A civil rights crusader. A champion boxer. A "guy who started from scratch -- black scratch," as he once said. Maxey was part MLK, part Johnnie Cochran. In the entrance to Gonzaga's law school library stands a sculpture of Maxey above the words, "He made a difference."
He did just that, despite a Dickensian start. Born in 1924 to a single mother in Tacoma, Maxey was adopted by a couple in Spokane. At age 5, he was given up to an orphanage. At 11, he was booted out, moving to the only place that would have him -- the juvenile detention center. Maxey would go on to study law, fight discrimination, defend antiwar protesters dubbed the Seattle Seven and represent Ruth Coe, mother of the South Hill rapist, who tried to hire assassins to kill the judge and prosecutor from her son's trial. There seemed to be no fight Maxey wouldn't take on.
"It's just a great American story. It's a classic rags-to-riches story," says Jim Kershner, whose biography of Maxey is now in local bookstores. "You can't really find a situation that has fewer prospects than being an orphan, an African-American orphan, in the Depression, kicked out of an orphanage. ... It's just a wonderful story of how one person can make a difference even against the longest odds."
The fact that Kershner is telling Maxey's story is a mix of happenstance and compulsion. In 1997, Kershner interviewed the aging attorney for a Spokesman-Review article about segregation in Spokane. The encounter lasted about two hours as Kershner's tape recorder ran out. Throughout the conversation, Maxey turned the subject toward his own life (rather than segregation at large). "It was clear that he was compelled to tell his story," Kershner says. "I just happened to be there."
It was apparently the last interview Maxey gave. Three months later, at age 73 and with retirement looming, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The New York Times credited him with "virtually single-handedly desegregating much of the inland Northwest."
A year later, Kershner read a version of his segregation article at a conference in Boise and someone in the audience suggested that he write Maxey's biography. He was hesitant. He hadn't known Maxey well and he wondered if he -- being a white guy -- were the right person to capture this larger-than-life figure. But as he looked into Maxey's earlier years, the more incredible the story became. "I figured somebody ought to write it," Kershner says. "Why not me?"
In between assignments for his full-time work as a reporter, Kershner began digging into Maxey's childhood, his adoption and his time on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation where he lived under the care of a Jesuit priest (who found him in juvie).
After a year, Kershner had finished about half the book, then ran out of stream. He made little progress during the next eight years, as he focused on getting his children through college. Still, he felt guilty about the book remaining half-finished.
"I felt it would be a shame if it wasn't told," he recalls. "Stories can get lost if nobody tells them."
In the final chapter, Kershner explores Maxey's legacy, opening with a scary thought: "What if Carl Maxey had never existed at all? Or, what if that little orphan boy had taken the most likely path and lived down to the world's expectations?"
In his absence, progress would have been much, much slower in the region, Kershner concludes. "Even the establishment came to understand that Washington was a much fairer place because of the existence of Carl Maxey -- and certainly a much more colorful place. Meanwhile, the underdogs -- the minorities, draft resisters, hippies, convicts and divorcees -- had known it all along. They had been filling Maxey's waiting room for years."