Fulton County Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr. in court
By GRACIE BONDS STAPLES
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/24/08
Judge Marvin Arrington had seen and heard enough.
The parade of black men and women — criminals and mothers of criminals — he saw every day frustrated him.
What he did to address it, some observers say, was classic Arrington. Others say it was arrogance.
"You guys are destroying your lives," he admonished — after asking the few whites present to leave his Atlanta courtroom. "Black people, please, turn your life around."
The scolding quickly became national news earlier this month. Arrington's "fireside chat," as he later called it, was being compared to the more public criticism first voiced four years ago by actor Bill Cosby, who criticized some African-American families for not raising their kids right, slammed black youth for wearing their clothes backward and berated them for failing to master the queen's English.
Their messages were so similar that the judge and the comedian agreed to combine forces for a presentation Thursday evening at Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta.
The ticketed event, which is not open to the public, is for foundering youths recommended by school systems and juvenile courts. Parent are encouraged to attend with them.
Cosby and Arrington hope to convince them that they can improve their situations instead of being resigned to them.
Arrington should know.
On the fifth floor of the Fulton County Courthouse, he is a Superior Court judge. On the street, he is one of them, starting out as a poor kid from Grady Homes.
His story could easily be theirs and theirs his.
"I was an inner-city thug," Arrington said. "Wouldn't listen to anybody. Teachers turned me around."
Arrington grew up hustling and fighting his way through childhood.
He hung out at the pool hall, shot dice on the corner like everybody else.
"I could've easily went the other way," he said. " That's how I know these kids can do better, but it's up to us to help them."
Were it not for the people in his life, coaches, teachers and sometimes complete strangers, he said, his life might have turned out differently. He might have gotten in trouble with the law, too.
Arrington spent his energy on the football field and basketball and tennis courts. When he wasn't playing sports, he worked, rising at
4:30 a.m. to throw the Atlanta Constitution, hopping cars after school at the old Split T drive-in.
On Sundays, he was in Bible school at Lindsey Street Baptist Church.
He always had people, he said, who regularly told him to straighten up, to take his schoolwork seriously, to be somebody.
So Arrington grew up to be somebody. He married and raised two children, became active in a prosperous law firm, wielded political clout and commanded respect from the Atlanta business community.
In 2002, after losing a bid for mayor, he was appointed and later won election to the Fulton County Superior Court, a source of great pride and building frustration.
It was the latter that spoke from the bench that day, said Lou M. Beasley, a former dean of the School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, Arrington's alma mater.
"That is uniquely Marvin Arrington," Beasley said. "He's genuinely concerned about the plight of our young people. He'd want to intervene."
Beasley met Arrington when they worked together to bring computers and other programs to poor children living in the John Hope Homes in Atlanta.
Beasley said that Arrington, then a board member at CAU, drove that effort, which served 90 children annually.
"As a university sitting in the middle of the neighborhood, he believed we needed to reach out to the community," she said, "particularly the children."
Arrington always has championed black causes, donating money to social service agencies, advocating for youth programs and mentoring young attorneys, said Lyndon Wade, retired president of the Urban League of Atlanta. Arrington repeats those themes frequently in his just-released autobiography "Making My Mark: The Story of a Man Who Wouldn't Stay in His Place."
"He's always asking me: 'What can be done? How do we stop these young people from ruining their lives?' " Wade said.
But not everyone is enamored by the judge's legal or civic work.
Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, said State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), dismissing white people from the court "reflects poor judgment."
Fort conceded the judge's message is good, but, he said, it "is hypocritical."
"How can he criticize a kid from the projects that has had none of the opportunities he's had?" he asked. "I'd hope that in his road show with Cosby he would maintain the decorum that is not always reflected in his public life."
In the days following, Arrington expressed regret over his actions.
Whatever form Arrington's delivery takes, he's by no means alone.
"He's like a lot of African-Americans and probably some whites, too. He's sitting there seeing all the problems we talk about, black youth going to waste, the ruined lives," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School. "It's very painful to watch."
"People feel this embarrassment and shame when we talk about it in front of society," said Poussaint, who with Cosby co-authored "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors." "But if the leading cause of death among black males is homicide by black males, you've got to talk about it."
Arrington was raised not to air dirty laundry in public, he said, explaining why he didn't want white people in the courtroom.
While others have criticized that move, Poussaint said, "I think what he did was pretty astute."
Had Arrington allowed them to stay, Poussaint said, "it would've been easier for blacks in the courtroom to dismiss what he said, to feel that he was only trying to bring them down in front of white people.
"If they felt that way, they would become more defensive and unwilling to change."
At 12:30 the other day, Arrington left the courthouse for lunch, headed to Sweet Auburn. He grew up not far from here in Grady homes, the public housing complex where he spent part of his youth.
Arrington does not need to make these trips back home. He has the resources to travel the world. He comes back because he must.
Inside, he stops at DiRienzo's Deli, orders a salad before crossing the aisle for six fried oysters, stopping to chat with vendors and their customers.
He carries his oysters back to the deli and takes a seat before launching once again into his story: the inner city kid doing all the wrong things until that light switch turned on in his head.
"I can't forget where I came from," he said.