Robert Nix Sr. and Jr. made family name synonymous with ‘civil rights’
Robert N.C. Nix Sr. (August 9, 1898–June 22, 1987) and Robert N.C. Nix Jr. (July 13, 1928–August 23, 2003) represented a family of influence in Philadelphia and in national politics. Both were political firsts in state and national political positions. Both practiced law, and both are alumni of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. Both were advocates for civil rights.
Born in Orangeburg, S.C., the son of a former slave who became dean of South Carolina State College, Robert Nelson Cornelius Nix Sr. graduated from Townsend Harris High School in New York City. He then went on to graduate from Lincoln University (1921) and received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He formed a law practice with former college roommate, E. Washington Rhodes (former publisher of The Philadelphia Tribune).
Nix Sr. was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, 2nd Congressional District in 1958. Thus, he became the first African-American congressman from Pennsylvania. He was re-elected 10 times. He worked for passage of the landmark legislation promoting the American Civil Rights Movement and privately worked to prevent the House from denying Adam Clayton Powell his seat in 1967.
A prominent figure in Pennsylvania law and public service, Robert N.C. Nix Jr. was the first African American to be elected to statewide office in Pennsylvania when he was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the first African-American chief justice of any state’s highest court, serving in that capacity from 1984 to 1996.
He was a graduate of Central High School, valedictorian of Villanova University and earned an MBA at Temple in addition to graduating from Penn’s School of Law.
Nix Jr. joined his father’s law firm as a partner, Nix, Rhodes and Nix, where he gained a reputation as a civil rights advocate. He was an active member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights (1963) where he raised questions about racial discrimination in city government hiring and pushed for action against slumlords.
In 1967, he was elected judge to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Nix Jr. was appointed associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Governor Milton Shapp in 1971 and elected the following year. From 1991 to 1992 he was president of the National Conference of Chief Justices.
Justice Nix had a reputation as a voice for individual rights, leading the court to interpret the Pennsylvania Constitution to ensure more individual rights than the U.S. Constitution, especially in areas of search and seizure and sovereign immunity. He was an early voice against prosecutors using their power to exclude African Americans from juries.
Pope John Paul II inducted him as a Commander Knight in the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
Some of his community and civic activities included membership in the NAACP Board of Directors, Germantown Boys Club, Pennsylvania Electoral College, President’s Committee on Civil Rights and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He retired in 1996, two years prior to mandatory retirement.
A visible testament to Robert N.C. Nix Sr.’s legacy and influence is The Robert N.C. Nix Federal Building at Philadelphia’s 9th and Market streets that is named in his honor. Robert N.C. Nix Sr. and Robert N.C. Nix Jr. paved the way for today’s most influential African Americans.
They Paved the Way
This series takes a historical look at several African Americans from the past who were influential during their time. While there were many involved in a variety of issues, time and space will not permit us to list all of them. However, we have selected a few “very” influential individuals and we will share their accomplishments with you as this series leads up to the 2011 Most Influential African Americans in Philadelphia edition of the Tribune Magazine.