R. Eugene Pincham

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R. Eugene Pincham, c.2000.

R. Eugene Pincham (28 June 1925 - 3 April 2008) was a pioneering American civil rights attorney, judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, justice of the Appellate Court of Illinois, and ardent critic of racial inequalities in the U.S. criminal justice system (also see Racial inequalities in the U.S. criminal justice system). Known for his enrapturing oratory which drew on his personal struggles and those of his fellow African Americans, and his tireless advocacy on behalf of those who could less speak for themselves, he was regarded as a political and legal icon. Both black and white lawyers who came behind him esteemed him as a role model for not only what he overcame but for what he accomplished.

Early life and education

Pincham was born in Chicago on 28 June 1925. His parents divorced seven months later and his mother moved with Pincham and his brother to Athens, Alabama. There Pincham grew up in impoverished circumstances and attended Trinity High School, a school begun by missionaries after the U.S. Civil War for the children of former slaves. School was a conflicted and inconsistent experience for the young Pincham, but he was exposed to the possibility of good that lawyers could do, and in 1941 graduated with an interest in becoming one.

That same year Pincham returned to Chicago and took a job as a janitor in a hospital basement. Some time later, he enrolled in LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee, a black college begun by white Congregationalist missionaries in 1862 to provide educational opportunity to then-recently-freed blacks. LeMoyne expelled Pincham for poor grades, but he took it as a lesson and reset his path. He got a second chance at Tennessee State University in Nashville, from which he graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor of Science in political science. A year later Pincham married his college sweetheart, Alzata C. Henry, and a few months afterward entered Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. While studying full-time at Northwestern, Pincham waited tables at Chicago's Palmer House Hotel and shined shoes. Despite the disadvantage of having to work while a full-time law student, Pincham earned his law degree in 1951. He was the lone graduating black in a class of eighty.

Legal career

After graduation Pincham began private law practice in state and federal courts. Then in 1954 he was brought on with what later became the high-powered law firm of Evins, Pincham, Fowlkes and Cooper. In 1965 Pincham was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1976, Pincham became a Circuit Court of Cook County judge and was assigned to the Criminal Division, where he served until 1984. He went on to become a justice of the Appellate Court of Illinois. There, Pincham gained a reputation as one who sought justice, irrespective without regard to status or wealth.

Pincham resigned from the bench in 1989 and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 1991, he became the Harold Washington Party's nominee for Mayor of Chicago. Although he lost, Pincham carried nineteen of the city's fifty wards with enormous support from African Americans.

Pincham was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a lifetime member of the NAACP. In semi-retirement, Pincham lectured in trial and appellate techniques and advocacy. He was recipient of a variety of awards for his legal and community service and activism.

Pincham was also known for making his home a meeting place for those concerned to work for social justice on behalf of Chicagoans.

Death and memorial service

Never fully retired, Pincham died of cancer on 3 April 2008 at the age of 82. His packed-house memorial service was held at Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, and was officiated by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.