Former Wake judge and civil rights lawyer George R. Greene dies

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2013 

Former Raleigh civil rights attorney George R. Greene, the first African American judge elected in Wake County, died Sunday. He was 82.

1989 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Former Raleigh civil rights attorney George R. Greene, the first African-American judge elected in Wake County, died Sunday. He was 82.

Greene represented African-American students from Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College who were arrested at lunch-counter sit-ins in the early 1960s to protest Raleigh’s Jim Crow laws. Greene would later spend more than 20 years as a Wake County District Court judge and Superior Court judge who was known for his unconventional courtrooms.

He was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2011.

“He was extremely respected, especially by the common, ordinary, everyday person,” said state Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh attorney and longtime friend of Greene. “He was a people’s kind of judge.”

Greene was born in Nashville, N.C., in 1930 as the son of two educators. He moved to Raleigh at age 15, later graduating from Shaw University. Greene’s time at the School of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was the only African-American student in his class, was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Greene passed the state bar examination in 1957 as the civil rights movement was heating up in North Carolina.

Soon after four African-American students in Greensboro launched the famous Woolworth lunch-counter sit-in in 1960, students at St. Augustine’s and Shaw held similar protests at segregated businesses in Raleigh.

For free, Greene represented the Raleigh students who were arrested for trespassing, according to the Rev. David Forbes, one of the leaders of the protest movement at Shaw who helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

“He was a man of the people who was willing to put his name and his effort on the side of the position of justice,” said Forbes, founding pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh. “He refused to be quiet in the face of injustice.”

After 17 years of private practice, Greene was elected to the Wake County District Court in 1974. He was elected to Superior Court in 1988.

Greene, who was a News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week in 1989, was described in the newspaper article as “a born performer who revels in the audience of a packed courtroom” and that “many have appreciated his informal courtroom manner.”

“George didn’t feel constrained by some of the artificial rules that other elected judges and elected officials feel they have to impose on themselves,” Blue said.

Longtime court watchers have a lengthy list of Greene stories.

On the last day of court before Christmas, Greene shouted “Merry Christmas” as he took the bench and announced he would offer a prayer for judgment continued to anyone pleading guilty for a minor traffic offense. This means a person won’t be convicted for the offense as long as they don’t commit the same or similar offense in the next three years.

Greene then led the courtroom in the singing of Christmas songs.

“He was folksy,” said longtime Raleigh defense attorney Robert McMillan. “He enjoyed presiding. It was just a pleasure to be in his courtroom.

But McMillan, who said he appeared before his friend hundreds of times, said the jurist was always fair in his rulings.

Greene’s courtroom remarks at times got him into trouble. He was censured twice by the state Supreme Court.

Greene retired in 1995.

A funeral service will be held noon Friday at First Baptist Church, 101 S. Wilmington Street, Raleigh, Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to noon.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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