In today’s “Freedom’s Journal” column, I’m honoring one of the most preeminent lawyers, most irresistible political forces, most relentless community activists, and most influential change agents in Philadelphia history: Charles Walker Bowser, Esquire.
Mr. Bowser was born 88 years ago on October 9, 1930. During his powerfully productive lifetime, he reached the level of prominence that requires official and annual local, state, and federal memorialization. And he’ll finally start getting it this year. More about that later in this column.
Allow me to begin at the beginning. During the mid-1970s when I was a young elementary school kid at Masterman, my mom and grandmom used to always brag about Mr. Bowser as some kind of local Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X all rolled up into one. Ever since then, I read everything I could about this thoroughly impressive man and his thoroughly impressive work.
The ancestors blessed me 18 years ago in 2000, five years before Mr. Bowser semi-retired, when they directed him to contact me and to be my mentor, thereby allowing me to learn at the feet of a genius at his stunningly magnificent Bowser Law Center on 16th Street near Locust Street. It was a reconverted three-story mansion with a chandeliered conference room and a state-of-the-art full-service copying, collating, faxing, postal, and clerical operations department in the basement. And he owned, not leased, that building.
Shortly before that momentous day in 2000- the most important day of my life as an attorney- here’s what happened. Out of the blue, Mr. Bowser called me after tracking down my number. I wasn’t available, so he left a message on my old answering machine. In that message, he simply said, “Hey, Michael. This is Charlie Bowser. I haven’t met you yet, but I’ve heard some good stuff about your legal and social activism on behalf of Black folks. And I’d like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of you working with me at the Bowser Law Center.” I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t be happening. That couldn’t have been “thee” Charles Bowser calling me. I wasn’t worthy. He was a legend. He was a giant. He was larger than life. He calling me? No way! But yes. Way!
When we met the next day at the Bowser Law Center, he talked about the past: slavery, sharecropping, peonage labor, Jim Crow, and de jure segregation. He talked about the present: de facto segregation, inadequate education, substandard housing, poor health care, employment discrimination, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminal injustice system. He said he and other Black civil rights and human rights warriors had fought the good fight by running the obstacle-filled race. And, as he put it, the time eventually comes for all runners to pass the baton.
He said that he was planning to retire, that he had attempted to do all he possibly could to help empower our people, that he had used the courtrooms, the boardrooms, and the street corners in those attempts, and that after more than 40 years of litigation and activism, he was ready to “pass the baton.” To me? Wow! I said “Wow” then and I’m saying “Wow” again now. I didn’t feel worthy then and I still don’t feel worthy now.
I learned a lot during that meeting’s conversation and hundreds of later conversations in which he stated his Bowser ancestors in America had never been enslaved, that as a youngster he was a star athlete from North Philly called Juicy, that he was co-captain of the football team at the elite Central High School, that he received a football scholarship from Temple University, that he worked his way through college after breaking his leg in his second year and was unable to play football, that he graduated with a degree in journalism, that he was an accomplished and published author and poet, and that he was a member of the nerves-of-steel Army Bomb Squad in the Korean War.
I learned that it was in the Korean War when he came close to being killed in battle after being attacked by a knife-wielding enemy soldier in a dark and cramped foxhole, resulting in a defensively courageous and gorily brutal hand-to-hand, life-or-death knife fight that ultimately ended with Mr. Bowser bloodied but standing and the other soldier laying bloodied and dead.
I learned that he and the powerful and fiery Cecil B. Moore in 1964 forced the City of Philadelphia, using their brains and brawn, to stop the Mummers from continuing their racist tradition of parading in blackface.
I learned that, as a follow-up to his 1990 organized boycott against a local newspaper, his 2002 demonstrations resulted in a rare public apology from that media outlet for what he and his followers described as repeated racist reporting.
I learned that it wasn’t just local or domestic racism that he fought. In 1985, for example, he wrote a compellingly persuasive book entitled The Apartheid Solution.
I learned that he was a viable Philadelphia Party candidate for Mayor in 1974, that he was an even more viable Democratic primary party candidate for Mayor in 1979, and that he stopped the racist Mayor Rizzo political juggernaut cold in its tracks in 1978.
I learned that he empowered Blacks economically as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee from 1964-1967, politically as Deputy Mayor from 1967-1969, and civically as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Urban Coalition from 1968-1975.
I learned that he promoted change in the court system as a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Judicial Reform from 1987-1988, provided essential legal advice to the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus as Special Counsel from 1988-2000, and helped write the rules of appellate procedure as a member of the Advisory Committee on Appellate Court Rules of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1995.
I learned that as a member of the MOVE Commission, he wrote in 1985 a scathing report and in 1989 an even more scathing book entitled Let The Bunker Burn, which called for the indictment of city and law enforcement officials who were responsible for the decision that resulted in the murder of eleven human beings, including five children, as well as the incineration of 61 homes and two and a half city blocks in a Black neighborhood.
And I learned, not from him (because he was always so modest) but from my subsequent extensive research about him, that he received numerous community service accolades such as the Philadelphia Tribune Leadership Award, the African-American Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Black History Month Honoree Award, the NAACP Cecil B. Moore Award, the Odunde David P. Richardson Community Service Award, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Award, the American Foundation for Negro Affairs Law and Justice Award, and the Barristers’ Association First Annual Hall of Fame Award.
Although the great Mr. Bowser became an ancestor on August 9, 2010, his incomparable legacy remains. And, beginning this year, that unparalleled legacy will be acknowledged by an annual “Charles W. Bowser Day” and showcased with resolutions, proclamations, and citations from local, state, and federal officials.
Celebrate his 88th birthday with those officials along with his family and former colleagues on October 9 at 2:00 in City Hall, Council Caucus Room 401. This event, hosted by Councilperson Jannie Blackwell and yours truly, Michael X, and is free and open to the public.