James M. Nabrit III
Periodically The Washington Lawyer features a conversation with a senior member of the District of Columbia Bar reflecting on his or her career as a lawyer. The "Legends in the Law" are selected by the District of Columbia Bar’s Publications Committee on the basis of their prominence in their profession and their individual impact on the law and the legal profession in the District of Columbia.
James M. Nabrit III, a 1952 graduate of Bates College and a 1955 graduate of the Yale Law School and son of James M. Nabrit Jr., came of age during the civil rights movement. After beginning his career with the law firm of Reeves, Robinson & Duncan (interrupted by a two-year stint with the U.S. Army), Nabrit spent 30 years (195989) as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
Where did you grow up?
My father was from Georgia, but in 1932 I was born in Houston, where he practiced law until 1936, when he came to Washington to teach law at Howard University.
Your father was a great civil rights lawyer. What was it like growing up in his house?
My father was always busy and had great intellectual abilities, but he was a kind and devoted parent who came home to dinner regularly and played ball with my friends and me. He was very sociable and gregarious. My father was at Howard University from 1936 until he retired in 1969, and he was one of the pioneers of civil rights law. He created the first civil rights law class in an American law school in 1937. In 1939, when I was in the first grade, he argued and won a voting rights case for the NAACP in the United States Supreme Court. The case was Lane v. Wilson and it involved an Oklahoma grandfather clause that denied blacks the opportunity to vote.
During the 1940s my father worked with Thurgood Marshall on several cases, including the Sweatt case. Heman Sweatt was a black man who applied to the University of Texas School of Law, but was denied admission at the all-white school. To purportedly conform with the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy, state officials in Texas had set up a shell of a law school for Sweatt in the basement of an oil company. My father’s argument was that the separate law school wasn’t equal to the University of Texas. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sweatt, and the case became a building block toward Brown v. Board of Education. The plan pursued by Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues was to attack segregation in law schools first because they thought judges would better understand the quality-of-education issues, since they had gone to law school themselves.
Many of my father’s friends were truly historic figures. The great civil rights attorneys William H. Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, and William Robert Ming were often at our apartment on social occasions. I don’t remember having any deep discussions with them, but in talking with my parents I realized that bringing an end to the Jim Crow system was on their minds all the time. It was the topic of conversation in our home.
When I was five years old my grandmother, Irene Boasman, insisted that the all-white school near her house in Philadelphia enroll me, and they did. So in 1937 I integrated a school for a few months as a kindergarten kid.
Where else did you go to school
as a child?
I went to racially segregated public schools here in Washington, D.C., through the 10th grade. After attending Dunbar High School for one year, I went to the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts.
Why did you switch to Mount
My parents wanted me to get the best education possible, and Mount Hermon was a great place with kids from all races and economic backgrounds. Every boy played sports and had a campus job, and study hours were strictly monitored. My days in the army were a lot easier than Mount Hermon School for Boys. I was privileged to attend great schools: Mount Hermon, Bates College, and Yale Law School. My parents’ sacrifices made it possible. My father had three full-time jobs at Howard for years. He was professor of law, secretary of the university, and director of public relations. My parents never even mentioned it to me, but clearly he was working very hard so that he could send me to those great schools.
When did you decide that you wanted to go to law school?
I can’t pinpoint a moment when I knew. But by the time I got to college I knew I wanted to become a lawyer. Bob Ming encouraged me to apply to the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a professor. During the summer of 1950, after my sophomore year, I went to see Thurgood Marshall in New York and talked with him about my Bates senior thesis, which I eventually wrote on the litigation against school desegregation, and I corresponded with him during those years.
While you were a law student you received day passes from your father to
attend the arguments of Brown v. Board of Education at the
Supreme Court. What was that experience like?
I saw the arguments in the Brown case in both 1952 and 1953. What strikes me in retrospect is how little I understood of what was going on. At that time the Supreme Court didn’t have amplification, and the lawyers had their backs to you and they talked at a conversational level. There was not a lot of great oratory, but technical legal argument is difficult for an outsider to understand. I did know enough to be very proud of my father’s presentation. The three arguments (1952, 1953, and 1955) have been printed as a book titled Argument, which I have read, and I know now that I was right to think that my dad was terrific.
Brown v. Board of Education was one of the most significant
cases of the past century. Did you have that feeling at the time?
Absolutely. Everyone knew that it was historic, but some people have forgotten how controversial it was to challenge segregation. There were prominent black lawyers and journalists who were attacking Thurgood Marshall and my father because they were afraid that a direct assault on the separate-but-equal doctrine might fail. They wanted the NAACP to seek only the equalization of black schools. They worried that the Court would uphold Plessy and cement the Jim Crow system. The fear was that taking these cases through the courts might make things worse rather than better. My dad was one of those who wanted to push harder and faster against segregation.
What was Washington like back then?
In the D.C. school case, Bolling v. Sharpe, the assistant corporation counsel argued that there was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited the federal government from engaging in racial discrimination, although the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination by the states. During oral argument he read a quote from the Dred Scott decision. The states were arguing that segregation did not amount to "discrimination." Think about those arguments. Washington was a completely segregated place. Before I went to school in Massachusetts, I knew only one white person, a man who had a store on Georgia Avenue. Racial covenants enforced by the courts restricted blacks from living in "white" parts of the city until Shelley v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Hodge (1948). White restaurants and movie theaters excluded blacks until the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Thompson restaurant case in 1953. Schools were segregated until 1954.
What was your first job after you graduated from law school?
After I passed the bar exam, I got a call from the late Frank Reeves, the civil rights lawyer who now has a D.C. government building named for him at 14th and U streets NW. Frank Reeves and his partners were terrific. I went to work with him and his two partners, Charles T. Duncan and Aubrey Robinson, who was later a judge of the U.S. District Court. I practiced in their firm on Florida Avenue for about six months and then went into the army for two years and later came back to the firm for a year.
You entered the army between the Korean and the Vietnam wars. Were you drafted?
I enlisted in the army reserve while I was at Yale. After graduation I was about to be drafted, and I applied for active duty at the time I would have been drafted.
I was stationed in South Carolina, Georgia, and Paris, France. You can guess which of the three I liked the best. I had spent considerable childhood time in Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, and had family there, but I still liked Paris best. In early 1956 I married Jackie Harlan, who is the daughter of a Washington lawyer, the late Robert J. "Jack" Harlan, who was in private practice and was later a civil rights official at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Jackie and I spent our first two wedding anniversaries living in Paris, where I had a dream army assignment doing secret work in a downtown building close to the Champs Élysées. I worked there for 18 months. Jackie and I have now been married 45 years, and we hope to spend more anniversaries in Paris, which has even more charms today.
What led to your decision to go to New York to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund?
When I got out of the army, the Brown decision was not being enforced. Four years after the Court handed down its ruling, school desegregation had still not crossed the Potomac. The public schools in Virginia were 100 percent segregated. The late Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, of Richmond, were counsel in a number of cases throughout Virginia, trying to get communities to implement the Brown decision. One of the cases was in Arlington, and Robinson and Hill needed new local counsel. In 1958 they enlisted Otto Tucker of Alexandria and Frank Reeves of Washington. At the beginning I carried Frank Reeves’s bags, literally, and that’s how I got my start as a civil rights lawyer. In the fall of 1958 U.S. District Judge Albert Bryan Sr. issued an order that required the school board to admit four of our clients to an all-white junior high school, but the order was stayed pending appeal.
Virginia had a law requiring that any desegregated school be closed. Robinson and Hill had cases in Norfolk and Prince Edward County, where all public schools were closed in the fall of 1958. Eventually, the state and federal courts found that law unconstitutional. In 1959, after the Fourth Circuit had affirmed Judge Bryan and Chief Justice Warren had denied a stay, our Arlington clients became the first students to attend a desegregated public school in Virginia. The parents and students were in a difficult situation. Imagine that you are a plaintiff in a highly controversial case and your congressman asks to see you. He comes to your house to visit you on a Sunday morning and tries to talk you into giving up your rights. Frank and I were at such a meeting in a client’s living room. The court orders were already in place, and their congressman made a last-ditch appeal to our clients asking them not to send their children to the white school. Bravely, they refused.
How was it for those students? Were they as badly treated as the children in Little Rock?
No, I never heard that they had the same sort of difficulties. There were other cases pending-Frank Reeves, Otto Tucker, and I filed suits in Alexandria and in Fairfax County-and Judge Bryan soon thereafter ordered that integration proceed. Integration spread rapidly throughout the northern Virginia suburbs albeit in a token fashion.
So how did this case result in your going to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund?
My association with the fund began in 1958, and continues to this day. In 1958 Frank Reeves took me to New York to strategy sessions with Thurgood Marshall and his staff. I began as an outside cooperating attorney, then worked on the legal staff for 30 years with various titles, and I now serve on the board of directors as secretary.
In the spring of 1959 I was invited to join Thurgood Marshall’s staff, which was very small. His legal staff had been bigger earlier, but when I joined it consisted of Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, the late Elwood Chisholm, and then me. Robert Carter had left to become the NAACP general counsel, and William Taylor, whom I had known at Yale, and several others had recently moved on. I was delighted to be their replacement.
What was it like to work for
Thurgood Marshall was kindly and full of fun. When I was hired, he announced to everyone that my job title was "low man on the totem pole" and that I was to be addressed as "boy." He always kept everyone laughing. Most of the people who worked for him loved him. For two and a half years I spent a lot of time with him, and traveled with him frequently. In Little Rock we shared a room at the home of L. C. and Daisy Bates, while a neighbor with a shotgun stood guard over Marshall-and me too I hoped-outside our window. Marshall made a point of selecting the bed by that window, saying that he didn’t want to have to tell Jackie that something had happened to me.
In New Orleans we appeared together before U.S. District Judge J. Skelly Wright, who was then courageously ordering school integration to proceed, notwithstanding a state legislature that kept meeting in special sessions to block his orders.
In a funny episode in Richmond, Virginia, in 1961, I was the lawyer and Marshall became my witness at a state court hearing. We were resisting a legislative committee that was seeking the names of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Virginia contributors. The proceeding became amusing because the local judge was much more interested in what the witness (who was America’s most famous lawyer) thought about an evidence question than he was in what I, Marshall’s supposed lawyer, had to say about an objection to Marshall’s testimony. I could not control the witness, who seized the opportunity to argue the law.
Marshall was gifted as an advocate. I thought that his oral argument in Boynton v. Virginia was exceptional. That was the case of a Howard University student who took a Trailways bus to Selma, Alabama, during a 1958 Christmas holiday, but was arrested in Richmond for seeking service at the white restaurant in the terminal. He had gone to the black counter, but it was too crowded, and he didn’t want to miss his bus, which had a short stop in Richmond. The waitress at the white counter refused to serve him. When he insisted on being served, he was arrested for trespass.
Marshall knew how to identify the big picture in a legal argument and to focus on the most important aspects of a case. Boynton was Thurgood Marshall’s last Supreme Court argument as a private civil rights lawyer, and he made a brilliant oral presentation and won the case. In retrospect I think that decision inspired and encouraged the sit-in demonstrators and Freedom Riders of the early 1960s.
When you started at LDF, did you work primarily on school desegregation cases?
It was a small office, and I did a little bit of everything. On my first day on the job, I was given a Supreme Court brief to write! Marshall had won a case before a court in Louisiana invalidating a Louisiana statute that made it unlawful for a white boxer to fight a black boxer. The state appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and my first job was to write that brief. When we won a summary affirmance, a boyhood dream had come true: I was Thurgood Marshall’s cocounsel in a successful case in the Supreme Court.
In the early 1960s I worked on school cases in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana, but I didn’t specialize. At an early point I was given the file in the case of a man whose death sentence had been affirmed by Alabama’s Supreme Court. The case was Hamilton v. Alabama. Charles Clarence Hamilton was a young black man who burglarized a home and exposed himself to a woman and then fled when she raised the alarm. He never touched her. But he was sentenced to death for "burglary in the nighttime with an intent to ravish." This was before Gideon, but indigent defendants still had a right to appointed counsel in capital cases. We made the argument that Hamilton had not been provided counsel at his arraignment and that this was a crucial phase. After a fine oral argument by Constance Baker Motley, the Supreme Court agreed, and Hamilton got a new trial and ultimately a lesser sentence.
How did the LDF become involved in the desegregation of public accommodations such as restaurants,
hotels, and theaters?
The sit-ins by black college students at white-only lunch counters began in 1960, and we immediately offered to help. There was no federal statute against discrimination in public accommodations at that time. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had meetings with the participants’ lawyers to come up with strategies to deal with the cases. I worked on defense strategies and later wrote briefs for the first cases that reached the Supreme Court. They were three Louisiana cases: Garner, Hoston, and Briscoe v. Louisiana.
We won by arguing that the police were the ones who were excluding blacks from lunch counters. The state argued that the police were simply enforcing laws against trespassing, but the Court agreed that in those cases it was the police and not the storekeepers who took the initiative to make sure the segregation continued.
Your opponents argued that individual businesses could choose their customers and decide who came on their property. Was this argument difficult to overcome?
It was a problem. In 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer held that courts could not enforce private contracts requiring racial discrimination, but it was not clear whether this rule applied to a policeman and a criminal court enforcing a trespass law that was being used to support race discrimination. The Supreme Court never decided that issue, although it was presented in several cases.
Few people remember how the sit-in cases were resolved. Ultimately, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we successfully argued that the thousands of pending prosecutions were all abated because of the federal statute. The new federal law created a right for the demonstrators to be served. It was a brilliant argument, based on an old Admiralty precedent put together by Yale Law professor Charles L. Black Jr., who was one of the Legal Defense Fund’s regular consultants and brief writers. The Court upheld that view by a 5-4 vote. Consequently, the legal issues brought up in 1961 were never resolved.
The LDF was before the Supreme Court a lot in the early 1960s. What was that like?
We did have a very large Supreme Court docket. We were very fortunate to be presenting arguments attacking the Jim Crow legal system at a time when the majority of the Court wanted to do away with Jim Crow. From the time of the Brown decision in 1954 until the 1973 Denver case, in which Rehnquist and Powell dissented, the Supreme Court was unanimous in every school desegregation case.
The Court struck down racially discriminatory practices affecting every area of life, including cases involving public buildings, marriage and personal associations, travel and public accommodations, recreation facilities, voting rights, jobs, and more. I did work on all of those subjects. I even wrote a brief on the case of a segregated court in Richmond, Virginia; the client was a black man charged with sitting on the white side of the traffic court.
The Supreme Court was ahead of the other branches of government in opposing discrimination. President Eisenhower and President Kennedy both supported some aspects of civil rights legislation, but the Court was the leading institution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came 10 years after Brown, well after the Court had taken the lead.
Justice William J. Brennan was a leader at the Court on school desegregation. His role wasn’t publicly known, but he was the principal author of the Little Rock opinion signed by all the justices. His role did not become apparent until his opinions in 1968 that segregated school districts had an affirmative duty to promote school desegregation.
One of the fundamental questions historians have regarding social change is, is it created from above or below? Do you think the Court changed the country? Or was it
the demonstrators sitting-in and
There were a lot indispensable people and institutions involved. Certainly Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, my father, and all of their colleagues deserve a lot of credit, as do the judges in the cases.
As to the larger question, I don’t know how to parcel out credit. If you read Richard Kluger’s great book, Simple Justice, on the very first page he describes what happened to the Reverend Joseph DeLaine of Clarendon County, South Carolina, who organized the challenge to school segregation, which became part of the Brown decision. They fired him and his relatives, sued him in a kangaroo court, which left him broke, burned his house to the ground while the fire department watched, stoned his church, fired guns at him in the dark, and declared him a fugitive when he shot back and fled the state. His life was destroyed. The Jim Crow system never would have been overcome without the sacrifices of brave people like DeLaine. Rosa Parks has become a symbol that represents many of these people. And I think she is the right symbol for the civil rights movement.
There is no doubt that the movement required intellectual leadership, but it would have failed without the passion and courage of the many people who were willing to put their lives on the line.
What was your relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. like?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave us intellectual leadership and physical courage, and he is also rightly recognized as symbolizing the movement. I knew Reverend King only slightly. Legal Defense Fund lawyers represented King’s organization regularly in demonstration cases from 1963 until after his death. I represented him and other demonstrators in court, but I didn’t have a lot of personal contact with him. I was with him at the Selma march trial before Judge Frank Johnson in federal district court in Montgomery. I also played a brief role representing King in Chicago, but the demonstrators settled their differences with the Chicago city fathers before I did very much.
You’ve referred to the 1965 march King led from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. Did you write the plans that allowed the march to take place?
Yes. The case was Hosea Williams v. George Wallace. All these actions took place after King and Williams and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a protest movement over blacks being denied the right to vote. Selma was a community where blacks had suffered a series of arrests and harassments when they tried to register to vote. Norman Amaker and Charles Jones of the LDF had been down there for months representing people who were arrested while trying to register.
Williams and King and others filed a lawsuit seeking the right to march to the state capital in Montgomery a day or two after the notorious "Bloody Sunday" episode, when marchers had been beaten by policemen as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
We wrote the march plan after the trial, during the remedy phase. The judge was preparing an injunction and wanted an order that would allow the marchers to be protected by the U.S. Army or other federal agents. Judge Johnson required the people who were planning to march from Selma to Montgomery to provide a detailed plan describing what they were going to do. We had to say how far the marchers would go each day and where they would stop. The plan had to be written overnight, so Jack Greenberg and I sat down with Hosea Williams and other SCLC leaders and drew up the plan, which was ultimately attached to Judge Johnson’s opinion.
There was a comical element to it. The plan contained the names of various churchyards and farms where the marchers proposed to camp. The New York Times said it read like a biblical trek through the wilderness. I later joked that it was my only biblical writing.
Did you work on the contempt case when King was arrested in Birmingham in 1963, which led him to write his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?
Yes, I did, but not until the case reached the Supreme Court a few years later. One of my jobs was to write appellate briefs. King and his followers had been arrested on two charges: contempt for violating an ex parte injunction not to march without a permit and violation of an ordinance stipulating that you can’t parade without a permit.
First, we lost the contempt case in the Supreme Court. Then after King’s death, we won the parade permit case in the same court. We successfully argued that the parade permit law was unconstitutional. So when he was alive, he was held in contempt for violating an order based on an unconstitutional law. By winning the second case, we felt he had been vindicated posthumously. There is a nice book about the case called The Trial of Martin Luther King by Alan Westin.
Anthony G. Amsterdam and I worked on the contempt case brief together. Tony is one of the greatest lawyers in the history of civil rights. He is selfless, unassuming, tireless, and had a photographic memory. He was worth a platoon of regular lawyers. He later received some recognition for his work on death penalty cases, but he deserves as much credit for his work in all areas of civil rights.
We had a crazy experience with that brief. We were sitting in my office the night before the brief had to go to the printers, and the power failed. Our papers were everywhere. We didn’t have any candles. By lighting matches we managed to gather our papers. Then we walked down 20 flights of stairs in the dark to the street. Somehow Tony finished the brief at his father’s apartment, late that night. Tony didn’t need much sleep.
Did you notice a change at the Supreme Court as the 1960s wore on? Some observers believe that as the civil rights struggle became more violent and radical, some of the justices, such as Hugo Black, became less sympathetic. Did you find that to be true?
I have avoided trying to be a Supreme Court pundit. I thought that being a Court critic was inconsistent with my role as a frequent advocate there. I will leave it to others to critique the Court’s decisions.
I will say that Hugo Black was one of the greatest justices in history and that I always admired him. The two of us had some lively exchanges in court. On one occasion he kept me on my feet arguing for a full half hour after the red light went on. Another time, at my apartment house in New York, a neighbor tried to console me because he heard on the radio how Justice Black had lambasted me in Court. But actually Justice Black voted for my clients in both cases, so what happens to a lawyer arguing a case doesn’t always foretell the result. I had the feeling that Justice Black liked to argue with me.
The Brown case made the issue of desegregation relatively straightforward in the South, where segregation laws were in place. In 1973 you argued a case before the Supreme Court that concerned northern
desegregation, the Denver Keyes case. What was the significance
of that case?
The southern cases were straightforward only in the sense that it was easy to prove a violation, but the remedy stages were complex in court, and quite complex socially and politically. We had President Nixon commenting on our cases, often unfavorably. With Julius Chambers and his partner Adam Stein-a D.C. native-I had litigated the busing issue in the Charlotte, North Carolina, case between 1969 and 1972, and that was not a walk in the park.
But the Denver case presented a different set of complications, because we had to prove the cause of school segregation because there was no segregation law in Colorado. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, a positive reaction occurred in Denver where a group of citizens began to push for school desegregation, and the school board voted for a voluntary desegregation plan. Then school board members who opposed desegregation were elected and they assumed the majority. They moved to repeal the desegregation plan, and a group of young lawyers opposed to the school board action enlisted Gordon G. Greiner, a litigation partner at one of Denver’s largest firms and a former Republican campaign official, to handle the case. In 1969 Greiner convinced the trial judge that the school board had racially gerrymandered the attendance zones in northeast Denver. Greiner’s pro bono work on the school case lasted nearly 30 years, and in the process he became one of my closest friends.
I began helping Greiner in 1972 when the case reached the Supreme Court. It was the first school desegregation case to be fully considered by the Court from a state that did not have segregation laws. In a decision written by Justice Brennan, the Supreme Court held that the Denver school board had deliberately segregated a substantial portion of the school system, and the systemwide remedies that applied in the southern cases should therefore apply to Denver.
So it wasn’t that there was de facto segregation because different races lived in different parts of the city?
No, the segregation in Denver was found to be de jure. We never thought that the Court would adopt a no-fault desegregation rule, and that proved to be correct when only Justices Powell and Douglas announced that view. The Court subsequently was unanimous in holding in another case that only deliberate race discrimination violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
What was your relationship with Jack Greenberg like?
We worked together for 25 years. In 1965 Jack, who had succeeded Thurgood Marshall in 1961, made me his number two at the fund. I succeeded Constance Motley as the fund’s associate counsel in 1965 when she became the Manhattan borough president, and I remained in that role under Jack and his successor, Julius Chambers, until I retired in 1989. Jack and I were the closest of friends, and still are. As colleagues and lawyers, we were inseparable.
You did a lot of capital cases during your career. What did those cases mean to you?
Although I worked on many capital cases, I think that I’m proudest of my work for five condemned men: Hamilton, Porter, Sims, Beecher, and Barclay. Fortunately, none of them was executed. I don’t think that we could accomplish the same thing today. The same legal arguments might not prevail.
The last case I argued in Court was Barclay v. Florida. We took the case after receiving a letter from Barclay, who wanted us to represent him after the Supreme Court had already decided to hear his case. I argued the case in the spring of 1983, and lost 6-3 before the U.S. Supreme Court on the last day of the term.
I was then fortunate to get Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, who later became president of the American Bar Association and is now president of Florida State University, to be my cocounsel in a postconviction effort in Florida. It was an unusual case in that we won in the state courts after losing in the U.S. Supreme Court. We won in the Florida Supreme Court with arguments of ineffective counsel and conflict of interest by the lawyer who had handled Barclay’s original appeal and later died. During the appeal the lawyer divorced his wife and married Barclay’s codefendant’s sister. The joint brief that he filed for his new brother-in-law and Barclay mentioned Barclay’s name only on the cover. The Florida Supreme Court granted a new appeal based on this showing. Then we won that appeal largely because of the jury’s recommendation of mercy for Barclay.
Many of my friends helped Sandy D’Alemberte and me in that case, including David Kendall, who later gained fame for his work as President Clinton’s private attorney. David was a wonderful person to work with and a great lawyer. In the 1970s, when he was a staff lawyer at the LDF, his office was filled with miniature chessboards. Each board seemed to be in the middle of a game. When I asked him about it, he explained that he was in middle of games played through the mail with his death row clients.
On a personal note, friends have described your interest in personal computers from an early date. How did that come about?
I have had lots of hobbies. I began as a computer hobbyist in 1978 by buying one of the first Apple II’s. The computer was connected to my TV and the software was on audiotapes loaded from a cheap tape recorder. I taught myself to write programs using the BASIC language. The operating system was on a tape from an unknown company called Microsoft. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the good sense to invest in Microsoft.
I’ve also heard that you are an avid scuba diver. Is that true?
Yes, even though I was never a particularly good swimmer without my equipment, I became a very active diver and underwater photographer for over 20 years. I’ve made more than 1,000 dives in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. It was my favorite activity, and there were periods when I would make three dives a day. I used to dive often in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. One year I opened a sea urchin while diving at Klein Bonaire, and an ocean triggerfish came along and ate it. When I went down the next time, I happened to see the same fish, who I began calling "Trigger." He was the biggest fish on this particular reef, and I deliberately fed him. He would then follow me as long as I was underwater. The triggerfish became known as my dive buddy. That happened over two or three years. As soon as I jumped in the water at his reef the same fish would show up expecting to be fed. Eventually I returned once again and the dive manager said, "Jim, we’re sorry, but your fish is gone. No one has seen him for some time." I didn’t worry. Trigger had the whole ocean to swim in.