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Civil Rights Pioneer

July 21, 2022

The unveiling of the design of a new mural honoring the life and legacy of the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. was held on Friday, July 15.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School is joining Mural Arts Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Citizen in honoring the life and legacy of Philadelphia civil rights pioneer the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. with a new mural in West Philadelphia. The design for the mural was unveiled at its future location at a tribute kickoff party on Friday, July 15.

The event featured music as well as donuts and coffee provided by Federal Donuts. Penn Carey Law School Board of Advisors chairman Osagie Imasogie LLM’85 spoke at the event.

Known for photographic-based works, artist Shawn Theodore was selected to create this public tribute that honors the late judge. The mural will serve as a visible reminder not only of Judge Higginbotham’s many achievements but also his influence and dedication to the West Philadelphia community; his singular voice of moral leadership will be introduced to a new generation of citizens. The project will be punctuated by a celebratory breakfast and mural dedication in September 2022 and supported by an editorial series, “The Color of Law,” produced by The Citizen.

Judge Higginbotham was a civil rights advocate, presidential advisor, and champion for racial equality. He served as the nation’s first African-American district court judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the first Black appointee at the commission level to a federal regulatory body. He also is a credited author of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Additionally, he was president of the NAACP Philadelphia Chapter, 1960-1962, and a member of the first Black law firm in Philadelphia — Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham. He was a longtime professor and trustee at Harvard, Penn, and Yale – and taught his unique course, “Race, Racism and American Law” at Penn Carey Law. A portrait of him hangs in the Law School today.

“Judge Higginbotham was a compelling figure, a colossus in the world of law who imparted his wisdom to a generation of students at the Law School,” said Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law Ted Ruger. “I can’t think of a better way to pay homage to him than with a tribute in the neighborhood that he called home for so many years.”

The mural measures 19 feet by 22 feet and will be located over the entrance of the Mercy LIFE West Philadelphia building.

“This mural will tell an important story about a hero from our Philadelphia community that not only created firsts for Black lawyers in the United States, but also inspired change in the world around us through his passion for civil rights and voice,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director, Mural Arts. “Art inspires change and allows us to tell this story that goes well beyond our walls. Mural Arts is thrilled to join The Philadelphia Citizen and Penn Carey Law in celebrating the story of Judge Higginbotham and can’t wait until the mural will be officially shared this fall.”

“I like to call Judge Higginbotham the Zelig of the 20th Century,” said Larry Platt, co-founder of The Philadelphia Citizen. “He quite literally was at the center of every major issue that advanced the cause of justice. But we’re also going beyond just honoring this Philadelphia civil rights giant by starting a conversation about how to apply his message of equality under the law to today’s troubled times.”

Watch the unveiling of the mural’s design:

Learn more about Judge Higginbotham’s legacy at the Law School.