Charles Wesley Bowser — my mentor and one of the most preeminent lawyers, most irresistible political forces, most relentless community activists, and most influential change agents in Philadelphia history — was born exactly 90 years ago on Oct. 9, 1930.
He was a local Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X all rolled up into one. And although he became a revered ancestor on Aug. 9, 2010, his unparalleled legacy has been highlighted in recent years by an annual “Charles W. Bowser Day” on his birthday and showcased with resolutions, proclamations, and citations from local, state, and federal officials.
Bowser blessed me 20 years ago in 2000, five years before he semi-retired, when he sought me out and became my mentor, thereby allowing me to learn at the feet of a jurisprudential genius while working 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, he called me after tracking down my number at my little rinky-dink law office. 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 that 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 having been 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 Bowser bloodied and standing and the other soldier bloodied and dead.
I learned that he and the powerful and fiery Cecil B. Moore, using their brains and brawn in 1964, forced the City of Philadelphia to stop the Mummers from performing their racist blackface parade skit.
I learned that, as a follow-up to his 1990 organized boycott against a local newspaper, he got 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.
Even after becoming a venerated ancestor, Bowser is still celebrated. Constance Majka, Director of Professional Learning at the National Career Academy Coalition (NCAC), recently stated, “Charles Bowser was the founder of a national education model called Academies. NCAC, a nonprofit organization that helps schools implement his model, is piloting a project called the Charles Bowser Youth Leadership Institute. Starting in spring 2021 in Virginia, Nebraska, and Florida, NCAC will work with teachers, students, and community partners to explore ways to create opportunities for high school students to engage in a leadership process centering on race and equity highlighting Bowser’s work.” I should mention that Majka will serve as director of this impressive Charles Bowser Youth Leadership Institute.
And some of the greatest and justifiable praise of Bowser comes from one of his nephews, Kyle Bowser — an award-winning multimedia producer, entertainment industry executive, and accomplished attorney. As Kyle told me just a few days ago, “Of the innumerable words of wisdom espoused by my uncle, the most memorable were offered during his graceful decline due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. I sat in his living room expressing concerns about the mounting toll of economic crises, international war, homelessness, climate change, and the persistent perils of so-called white supremacy. When I asked this elderly sage, whose mind and memory were clouded by time, disease, and medication, what we could do to stave off the onslaught of maleficence and neglect, his response provided brilliant and simplistic clarity. ‘Take care of your block,’ he insightfully responded. His words pierced me and the cloud of despair I had allowed to consume my spirit. Imagine if we all lived by that mantra. Healthy blocks create healthy neighborhoods, which in turn create healthy cities, states, and nations. If we all just do our small part, the world wins. Let’s get to it.”
Uncle Charlie — I mean the esteemed Charles W. Bowser, Esquire — is asking us all to “Get to it.” So let’s do it then, starting on his 90th birthday!