Memphis civil rights pioneer Judge Russell Sugarmon dies

Memphis civil rights pioneer Judge Russell Sugarmon dies

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Judge Russell Sugarmon, one of the first African Americans to make a serious bid for a major city office in Memphis in 1959, has died. He was 89 years old.

Sugarman, hailed as a giant in the Memphis civil rights movement, became the second African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly as state representative in 1966. As a member of the NAACP, Sugarmon fought to desegregate public transportation, schools and restaurants.

“The fact that we can go out and vote without being harassed," his son Tarik Sugarmon said. "We can register to vote, that we can enjoy public accommodations such as going to the zoo, such as getting on the bus and not having to go to the back of the bus. These weren’t just changes that he made, they were changes he and those friends who were freedom fighters along with him in the civil rights movement through the 50s and 60s and 70s also helped shape.”

Members of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators released a statement Monday upon learning of Sugarmon’s passing.

“Judge Sugarmon’s accomplishments obviously make him a Memphis icon,” said Chairman G.A. Hardaway. "But in addition to all of the career accolades, it should be noted what an extraordinary husband, father, grandfather, friend and human being he was. Everything he stood for in his public life, he also demonstrated in his private life.

“Russell Sugarmon was a humble, kind and good man,” said Hardaway. “The members of Tennessee Black Caucus are grateful for the generation of giants of conviction, advocacy and activism that made it possible for us to serve today.”

Sugarmon graduated from Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School, Rutgers University and Harvard Law School. He became a judge in 1987 and was re-elected numerous times.

Judge Betty Thomas Moore said she was in awe of Sugarmon when she was a new judge.

“Elected in 1988 to Division 4 of General Sessions Civil Court, he had been serving on the bench for 10 years when I came on as a baby judge in 1998,” said Moore. "As a new judge and a born and raised Memphian I was in awe of not only him as a judge but this also bigger than life civil rights icon of our city. Judge Sugarmon was one the most kindest people you would ever meet. I had been a Public Defender for 13 years before being elected to Division 5 and he was so open and available to help me in any and every way that he could to make sure that i would grow to be and would be the best that I could be. He not only didn’t mind, and he did on many occasions for any lawyer or judge who sought help, sharing his wealth of wisdom, knowledge and experience with you but the stories, the history that he shared of his groundbreaking and oft times painful times as a civil rights activist and politician Memphis were just jaw dropping.

“But was also just a teddy bear who loved the law, being a judge,” said Moore. “(He) loved this city and intensely loved his wife, Gina, and his family. I remember that one of his most proudest if many moments in life was when his son,Tarik, was elected a city court judge. My my, you couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. He will truly be missed.”

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