Tom Colbert, sworn in as chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court the same week America was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, recalled Friday the sacrifices that family members and others made for him to attain that position.
Colbert, appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004, told hundreds that came to watch him take office as chief justice, how his grandfather and mother provided him encouragement to overcome a high school guidance counselor's assertion that he was unfit for college.
“That's why we need role models,” Colbert, 63, said. “I was very blessed to have a mother and grandparents that even though you were discouraged they promoted and pushed and encouraged you to continue on, knowing that was the only way that you're going to break the chains of poverty.
“That's what concerns me today is that a lot of these young kids out here don't have grandparents that are in a position to encourage them when they are told something or they run into a situation that they don't feel like they have a way out,” he said.
A large crowd, which included judges, attorneys, friends and family members, spilled out from the ceremonial Supreme Court courtroom into the hallway and rotunda of the state Capitol to witness the historic swearing-in ceremony.
Among those was former Gov. Brad Henry, who appointed Colbert to the Supreme Court, making him the first black member on the high court.
“I saw a great person who would be a great justice,” Henry said. “It wasn't about making history. It was about appointing the best person, and he was the best applicant that I interviewed.
“I'm obviously very, very proud of Chief Justice Colbert and all that he's accomplished. He makes all of us Oklahomans proud.”
Retired Oklahoma County District Judge Charles Owens, the first black judge in Oklahoma when he was appointed by then-Gov. Dewey Bartlett to the post in 1968, issued the oath of office to Colbert.
Colbert, who had served the past two years as vice chief, then swore in Justice John Rief as vice chief.
Colbert revealed to onlookers he considered resigning the post twice, once to be considered for a federal judgeship and the other to consider an offer in private practice. Both times, his mother and his wife told him that he owed it to those who struggled for civil rights before him to remain and eventually become chief justice.
“They were right,” he said.
“Here I am on the doorstep of making it to the next level, and it would be very selfish for me to worry about my own opportunities when someone else may never get the opportunity to stand where I'm standing, being a minority.”
The nine justices vote on selecting a chief justice every two years.
The chief justice is the key administrator of the court's many functions.
Justices voted in November to elect Colbert as the high court's chief justice. He succeeds Justice Steven Taylor.
An interesting time
Colbert said it's an interesting time for him to become chief justice.
In addition to the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed that those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, this week saw his law school classmate, David Lewis, sworn in as presiding judge of the five-member Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
Lewis was the first black person appointed to the state's highest criminal appellate court.
Next week, House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is expected to be elected speaker, becoming the first black person to hold that powerful post in Oklahoma.
Colbert said a painting outside the Supreme Court courtroom in the state judicial building across from the Capitol serves as a reminder of those who fought for civil rights.
Among those depicted in the painting is B.C. Franklin, a black lawyer who guided many residents through the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and fought the injustices of Oklahoma's official racist policies such as the Jim Crow laws, which provided for separation of the races.
In his own family, his great-great grandfather, born in 1845, was a slave in Georgia until at the age of 17 he ran away from the plantation and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.
His grandfather, Ed Colbert, born in 1894, was a key role model for him. He had to drop out of school when he was in the sixth grade to support his family, which included helping pay for his younger brother's college education.
A look at his career
Colbert was born in Oklahoma City and graduated from Sapulpa High School.
He attended Eastern Oklahoma State College and earned his bachelor of science degree from Kentucky State University in 1973.
After serving in the Army, he earned a master's of education degree from Eastern Kentucky University in 1976 and taught in Chicago's public schools.
He received his juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 1982, and served as assistant dean at Marquette University Law School from 1982 until 1984.
He then served as an assistant Oklahoma County district attorney from 1984 until 1986.
He maintained a private law practice in Oklahoma City from 1986 until 2000.
Colbert was appointed in 2000 by then-Gov. Frank Keating to serve as a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.
He served on the appellate court until Henry named him to the Supreme Court.
Henry glad he stayed
Henry, who during his eight years as governor appointed six of the nine justices serving on the bench, said he was surprised that Colbert considered leaving the Supreme Court.
“I'm glad that he didn't because he is one of the finest individuals that I ever met and has served this court honorably and with great intellect and distinction and will continue to do so now in the role of chief justice,” he said.
“So I'm glad that he decided to stick around.”