“Like Spartacus of the ancients, Mr. Washington goes into the pit of the courtroom arena armed with the sword of righteous indignation, the shield of the Constitution, and the breastplate of impeccable honor to fight for those broken of spirit. When Craig Washington does his final summation, I am convinced the angels from above get a seat in the rafters of the courtroom just to listen to his voice, a voice from heaven advocating persistently and passionately for the poor and persecuted.” —Congressman Ted Poe on Brilliant Legal Mind and Living Legend Craig Washington
Story By: Darwin Campbell,
Photo Credit: Priscilla Graham
HOUSTON-Traveling the road to freedom, many have made made great contributions, but none more unique and powerful as Craig Anthony Washington.
His fiery brand of speaking truth to power and his sincere spirit of persuasion not only has influenced a generation of Black attorneys, but also paved the way for freedom fighters by being a humble, honest, yet stern voice for the people.
Washington has a long list of accomplishments, but among his greatest work is his ultimate fight to protect the civil rights of the community, the poor and disadvantaged.
“I wanted to make a difference and used all that I had to do that,” a humble Washington said. “I tried to move things forward and make life better for all people.”
He calls on the new generation of servant-leaders to learn from his example and step up and take the leadership torch and build on his and other civil rights pioneers legacies to improve the quality of life for the less fortunate and take the community to the next level.
“Now is the time to make a difference in the race you are running,” Washington said. “We have done our best and now the torch is passed. You have been put where you are for a reason. God gave you something to do and you got to go and do it.”
The road to being the great attorney-orator was not a walk in the park. Growing up, Washington witnessed first hand racial prejudice, segregation and the disrespect of being Black in Texas and America.
Washington did not make any excuses, but recognized his talents and used his inner drive and faith to step up and prove that an African-American attorney can be competent and be a loud strong voice in a sea of critics and racist naysayers who challenged Black intelligence during his day.
Washington was born on October 12, 1941, in Longview, Texas and was the first born of two children.
He went right to work on getting that education attending Brock Elementary School in Houston, Fidelity Junior High School, then Fidelity Manor Senior High School in Galena Park, from which he graduated in 1958. After high school, he worked his way through Prairie View A&M University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biology in 1966.
Motivated by the times, Washington set his sights on higher goals and went on to attend Texas Southern University Law School from 1966 to 1969, graduating number one in his class, with honors. While in law school, he was Captain of the Moot Court Team (1967-1969). President of the Student Bar Association (1968-1969), and Research Assistant to the Dean of the Law School (1968-1969). During law school, Mr. Washington received several awards. He held a Charles T. McCormack Scholarship (three years), achieved the Dean’s List (six semesters and three summers), Honor Roll (three Semesters), was the Delegate at the American Bar Association Convention, was Team Captain for the Texas Junior Bar Moot Court Team, and National Moot Court Team, received the American Jurisprudence Award for Excellence for the highest class grade in Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, Administrative Law, Criminal Law, Insurance Law, Civil Procedure, Agency, Moot Court, and Conflict of Laws.
Upon graduation from law school, Washington served Texas Southern University Law School as Assistant Dean and Assistant Professor of Law, teaching a course in Legislation. During the 1973-1974 school years, he taught a Political Science course in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Houston.
After school, Washington started to make his mark on the world with a desire to raise social consciousness and be a voice for truth and justice and ensure that the poor and disadvantaged would not be left behind.
In 1972, Washington, along with four other minority candidates, Anthony Hall, George T. “Mickey”, Benny Reyes, and Cecil Bush Leland (dubbed the “People’s Five”), ran for seats in the House of Representatives in Texas.
Washington was elected, and served as Texas state representative, Rep. District 86, from 1973 to 1982. He was then a Texas state senator, Senatorial District 13, from 1983 until 1989.
He was described by many as a man with an “unwavering in his concern for the downtrodden”. His reputation for his advocacy made him one of the best. Texas Monthly magazine dubbed Washington one of the 10 best legislators in the state 3 times.
What made him so unique? It was his sincere approach, attitude toward his topic and his solid determination and can do spirit combined with a great work ethic. He also did not mince words.
“That doesn’t make you popular, but it sure makes you feel good at night,” Washington was known to say frequently.
Some of his work is still talked about in the halls and many have tried to recreate and imitate his sheer rawness that forced leaders of mankind in America to look in the mirror and consider the plight of his fellow man.
It was Craig Washington who defied a system that would deny health care to children because they had the misfortune of being born into poverty. He persuaded the House to raise child-welfare payments in 1979, holding up a pair of children’s cheap jeans, shoes, 2 pairs of socks, deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo, but no food. The tab for the items came to $27.27, just under the welfare rate of $32.58 a month.
It was Washington who in an attempt to block reinstatement of the death penalty in Texas, he tacked an amendment on the bill that would have placed the electric chair in the middle of the House floor and required a majority vote of both houses to turn on its power.
It was Washington who dared to confront and to denounce the system…not behind closed doors so that he could retain deniability, but publicly, boldly and successfully.
Washington astonished the legal community in 1984 with a legal victory for Eroy Brown, a black prison inmate who killed 2 white prison administrators.
There were three trials in the case, and everyone thought Brown’s self-defense plea was not winnable. Everyone except Washington, who has an unwavering respect for the United States Constitution who fights to ensure that justice will ultimately prevail.
One of his co-counsel in the Eroy Brown case said she will never forget Washington’s closing argument in the Brown case.
“He absolutely captured the jury, and at the end of his argument there were several jurors who were noticeably weeping,” she said. ‘’When he gives a jury argument, it’s almost like an ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
The United States Congress
In 1989, Washington set his sights higher and was elected to the 101at Congress from the 18th Congressional District filling the seat vacated by the sudden death of Leland. He served until January 1995.
During his tenure in Congress, there had not been such a fiery voice to grace the halls since the days of Reconstruction, when Blacks held political power in the days of the first black Senator and Representatives: Sen. Hiram Revels (R-MS), Rep. Benjamin S. Turner(R-AL), Robert DeLarge (R-SC), Josiah Walls (R-FL),Jefferson Long (R-GA),Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliott (R-SC) from 1870 to 1880.
Clearly Washington’s tour on Capitol Hill was one for the history books, because like no other, he devoted his time in public office to advocating for those with no voice: the poor, the homeless, AIDS victims.
His arrival to Congress was no less quiet as he quickly became known as a major contributor and fighter for justice, education, and equality for all.
During the debate on the Civil Rights Act, he chaired full committee and field hearings, led floor debate on quotas, fought for the ability of women and religious minorities to sue for damages, and was a member of the Conference Committee in both the Education and Labor and Judiciary Committees.
It was Washington who shared his passion arguing on the House floor of the United States Congress against amending our Constitution to protect the flag. On that occasion, he said. “I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag.”
He also focused on national issues, helping then Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., draft President Clinton’s crime bill and taking a lead role in fighting Clarence Thomas’ confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.
He was a also a key member on many vital committees and subcommittees that handled numerous issues that impacted everyday lives of citizens, such as child care, higher education, elementary education, and energy.
His work on civil rights is still be felt today, especially at local levels of government in Houston.
Washington represented the plaintiffs, lead by Moses Leroy in challenging the way Houston elections were conducted.
The case attacked at-large elections as inherently discriminatory and resulted in the city’s election system of at-large and single member districts.
It is the reason that Houston’s city council got and continues to have black and other minority representatives.
His civil rights fight and arguments for justice always cut to the core of the legal heart proving he was a man ahead of his time.
Frank Blazek, former Waller County district attorney, once said Washington’s arguments were ahead of the law then, too, in a situation arguing that the prosecution should have to give nonracial justification for striking minorities from the jury pool.
Though the judge ruled against Washington’s point at the time, the Supreme Court, in an unrelated case, agreed with the argument four years later.
For years, Washington sued the Houston Police Department in cases of suspected brutality or death involving officers.
A judge asked him why, since the law said that only the officer involved could be sued, not the city.
“I said, ‘Because the Supreme Court is wrong,’” Washington recalled in a recent interview. “He looked at me like, ‘You poor kid, the Supreme Court is wrong?’”
The Supreme Court later echoed Washington, making it possible to sue governing bodies for the actions of their employees.
Washington became the defense attorney for Tyrone Williams, the Jamaican truck driver ultimately convicted of a capital crime in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants in a 2003 human-smuggling operation. At least 75 people were crammed into a hot, suffocating trailer when it was abandoned near Victoria. Craig was at the forefront of a challenge made in that case that could have been a start at changing the face of the criminal justice system. Prosecutors have almost unfettered discretion to determine whom they will charge with a crime and when they will seek the death penalty. In 2005, Craig challenged federal prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty against the only black defendant of several defendants charged in the same illegal smuggling case. During argument, Craig convinced the federal district judge hearing the case that the prosecutors had indeed abused their discretion, to the point where she threatened to order then Attorney General Ashcroft to appear to show cause why the death penalty was only being sought against the black defendant, who was Craig’s client.
He argued that prosecutors sought the death penalty against Williams – and none of the 13 other defendants in the case – because he is black. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Washington’s request that the prosecution be forced to justify its decision.
But many lawyers commenting on the case and career believed Washington not only is a brilliant legal mind, but also one who was a step ahead of the court in his legal documents.
Craig Washington has been a teacher and a student, described as courageous and humble, fiery and soft-spoken, gregarious and introverted, he is recognized among his peers as a brilliant lawyer, passionate and tolerant, a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a man.
Later in his career he returned to his Alma Mater as Distinguished Visiting Professor, to teach Evidence and Criminal Law during the 2000-2001 school year.
In 2007, Prairie View A & M University, his undergraduate alma mater, recognized Craig Anthony Washington as a living legend.
On November 13, 2012, Craig A. Washington was inducted into the State Bar of Texas Legal Legends.
Washington said as the sun sets on a stellar career of successes and championship running and freedom fighting, he hopes the next generation will build on that success.
“We are one race- the human race and we must stop allowing people to divide us and make us fight one another,” he said. “Now is the time to be courageous. We cannot let a few loud voices turn our great democracy into something it is not.”