Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 24, 2022

McClarty looks back on path to historic appointment

In “The Dreamer,” Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge John McClarty tells the story of his dream to become a lawyer. Packed with photos and history, he details his struggles and how he accomplished his goal. - Photograph provided

By David Laprad

John McClarty was 4 years old when the dream that would guide his life awakened in him as his father spoke about the lawyer he had hired to handle a car accident case.

Seventy years later, McClarty can still see the respect on his father’s face. “As a kid, I wanted my dad to look at me like that,” he says.

McClarty says his mother’s distress as she spoke about a friend whose estranged husband had killed her with an ice pick – a common household utensil in the 1940s – also impacted his thinking.

“I wanted to help people resolve their disputes without resorting to violence.”

Although most childhood reveries eventually fade, McClarty’s dream of becoming a lawyer only brightened over time. Even though he grew up poor in West Chattanooga – and in a world in which he was not guaranteed admittance to a university – he was determined to become an attorney.

“My dad said I always talked about becoming a lawyer as I grew up,” McClarty recalls. “I even tried to represent my brothers whenever they were in trouble.”

McClarty not only overcame the odds stacked against him and became a lawyer, but he also became a state judge – the first African American to do so in Tennessee.

McClarty’s youngest daughter, Tiffany, believed this was a story worth telling, so she encouraged her father to write his memoirs. His account of his life is now bound in a thin but handsome hardbound volume titled simply “The Dreamer: John W. McClarty.”

“She said it would teach younger people they could bring out their potential and put it to good use if they put their mind to something and then worked on it,” McClarty explains. “And nobody can tell your story the way it should be told but yourself.”

As the “The Dreamer” begins, McClarty paints a picture of a hardworking youth who spent more time working than he did studying, giving him an auspicious start as a scholar.

“I worked long hours at Central Avenue Super Market in junior high school and high school. On school days, I would work from eight o’clock until 8:30 before school and then four o’clock to 7:30 after school. On weekends, I would go to work at eight o’clock in the morning and stay there until eight or nine o’clock at night. It stunted my educational growth. I did not realize how far behind I was until I started college.”

Three armed robberies at his place of employment solidified McClarty’s resolve to become an attorney.

“One guy came in with a .45, one came in with a .38 and one came in with a shotgun. The police supposedly caught one of the guys and subpoenaed me to testify during his trial. And after I gave my testimony, the judge let me stay in the courtroom and watch.”

McClarty remembers thinking he could provide a better defense for the accused.

“I would have visited the scene and interviewed the witnesses before they took the stand. The robbery occurred at night, and someone outside the store identified the guy who was on trial, so I would have observed the lighting outside store because I was not sure they could have made a positive identification.

“I thought, ‘I can do this just as well as they can – and I am going to do it one day.’”

Knowing he would need to make his own way, McClarty says he spent every waking moment of the summer of 1967 working at a Rossville mill to save money for college.

“They cut everyone back to 30 hours a week after a fire destroyed one of the mills. I was making a little over a dollar an hour, which was not going to be enough money because there was no possibility of me getting a college loan or a scholarship. I barely made it out of high school with my grades.

“So I told the plant superintendent I was trying to save money for college. He said I could come in any time and work as many hours I wanted to. And that is what I did the rest of that summer. I worked 100 hours one week.”

McClarty applied to several colleges but was accepted by none. Some – including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville – never acknowledged his application. But after he applied to attend Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, a month before classes were scheduled to begin, he received a yes.

“I think Austin Peay might have graduated its first African American student the year before. But that year, it went all out to get as many African Americans as possible. We had only about 25 blacks in my class of 3,500.”

McClarty had learned bricklaying in high school as a backup plan, but the acceptance letter from Austin Peay opened the door he had intended to step through since he was a boy.

“I packed everything I had in a trunk and purchased a ticket on a Greyhound bus. My parents did not know what to think. I had always told them I was going to go to college and become a lawyer, and they had always said, ‘OK, sure.’”

McClarty’s academic deficiencies quickly caught up with him in college, where he learned he not only lacked remedial knowledge but also needed better study habits.

When Austin Peay sent his parents his midterm grades, his mother penned him what he describes as a “long and beautiful letter” suggesting he return home and go to work.

But as McClarty weighed his options, one of his professors lit a fire under his feet that saved his academic career and everything that followed.

“He spoke in class one day about students who were behind. He said we could go to the library, lay a foundation for ourselves and then build up from that. I knew it would take an awful lot of work but I had to change something.”

McClarty ran with the idea. He also took two friends – his roommate, Mitchell Johnson, and his classmate, Howard Roddy – along for moral support.

“We went to the library every day after our classes were over and stayed until it closed. On weekends, we would be in the library from the time it opened until it was about to close. They were already good students but they went to encourage me.”

By the time McClarty graduated from college, his grades were just shy of putting him on the dean’s list.

Although the U.S. Army drafted McClarty out of college in 1971, the military diverted him from the front lines in Vietnam to Germany, where he served as a clerical assistant for the training officers.

When he returned to the States, he earned his juris doctor degree from Southern University, an historically black school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“I still wanted to be a part of the organized system we have that helps people resolve disputes. I wanted to help people come together and resolve their problems in an organized and disciplined way.”

Although McClarty did well academically at law school and even penned articles for the law review, he was concerned about passing the bar examination.

“African Americans were not passing the bar at that time. There were things that were discriminatory. [Bar associations] eventually changed the exam and how they prepared students for it, but not before 1976.”

After taking the bar exams in Louisiana and Tennessee, McClarty accepted a fellowship to earn an advanced degree in tax law at the University of Colorado. He was studying one morning when he took a break to call his mother – who gave him good news.

“She told me I had passed the Tennessee bar. I studied for maybe another hour, but something was saying, ‘Go home.’ So I dropped my courses, packed my things, bought a plane ticket and was in Chattanooga that night.”

Not one to waste time, McClarty was looking for a job the next morning. But no firm would hire him.

“Law firms were not yet interested in hiring an African American lawyer,” he says.

In the acknowledgements section of “The Dreamer,” McClarty lists the individuals who supported him on his journey to become an attorney. Just below “the Lord” and his parents, McClarty names Chattanooga criminal defense attorney Jerry Summers, who gave him his first legal position and guided his professional development.

“Jerry offered to pay me a salary as an entering associate. My job was to be at Chattanooga City Court. If the judge needed assistance or somebody had been arrested but did not have a lawyer to represent them, the judges would appoint me to those cases.”

McClarty says he made only a little money but gained valuable experience in a variety of cases. His name also regularly appeared in newspaper articles covering the cases and he became familiar with many local police officers, who then called him when they needed help.

A year later, McClarty put his starting salary in his rearview mirror when he renegotiated his arrangement with Summers.

“Jerry still paid me a set amount but I also received 50% of any cases I brought in that generated a fee. And I began to make a hell of lot a more money.”

Although McClarty was also making a name for himself, he still faced opposition when he decided to do something no African American attorney had done in Chattanooga – open his own law office.

“Some people – including some African Americans – said Chattanooga did not need a black law office. They told me I would not make any money and all I would do is write a few wills. But I felt I could do the job, regardless of the color of my skin.”

As had been the case when a supervisor allowed McClarty to earn the money he needed for college, and a pair of friends joined him at the college library every day and a forward-thinking attorney gave him his first job as lawyer, there were also those who provided support.

Summers sent McClarty Chapter 13 bankruptcy work, for example, while Juvenile Court Judge Dixie Smith gave him all the cases he could handle.

While writing “The Dreamer,” McClarty could have skipped ahead to when he became a judge, but he instead filled the pages of his book with the kinds of details that excite local history buffs and stories that might surprise his readers.

For example, to elevate his practice, McClarty eventually built a McCallie Avenue office building across the street from where he attended school as a 5-year-old.

“I wanted to have a place people could look at and say, ‘I would not mind taking my case to that lawyer.’”

It’s the kind of narrative detail that gives a story a gratifying sense of completion. But the details of another episode McClarty included in “The Dreamer” could startle readers as it comes full circle.

“I handled a lot of appointed cases in Chattanooga before we had public defenders,” McClarty says as he begins to summarize the account in his book. “One day, one of the judges said he had an elderly man in his courtroom who was charged with attempted murder.

“The man could not get along with any lawyers, so the judge asked me to look at his file and consider taking his case. I had taken so many criminal cases by that point that I had developed a way to make people feel comfortable, so the man allowed me to represent him at trial.

“He was a seamster with a little shop in the Doctor’s Building on McCallie Avenue. One day, a young woman (with whom he was involved) ... came to his shop to get money or something. And he probably grew tired of her and tried to pull her out but she would not go. So, he pulled a gun and started shooting. Although he did not kill her, one of the bullets came close to her heart.

“He was convicted of aggravated assault instead of attempted murder, which pleased him. But as I read his pre-sentence report, I saw he had killed his ex-wife with an ice pick.”

The pages of “The Dreamer” are replete with accounts of the cases that defined McClarty’s legal practice, including his participation in a lawsuit Summers filed against the state of Tennessee on behalf of the family of Clarence Hamler, a Chattanooga police officer who was killed when he interrupted an armed robbery at the Red Food Store on South Broad Street in 1977.

Those stories stop after McClarty ascends to the bench, however. “I need to keep myself open for anything that is presented to me in a case and I need make sure I do not show myself to be partial,” he explains.

Fortunately, the account of how McClarty became a judge makes a fitting final act.

“When [Chief Justice William] Barker decided to retire in 2008, there still had not been an African American state judge in Tennessee. But the judicial selection commission thought Gov. [Phil] Bredesen would be amenable to appointing an African American state judge.

“Jerry and some other people had observed my work and my demeanor over the years and thought I would make an excellent judge. But that was not my initial desire. My dream was to be a lawyer. Besides, I knew how much judges made – and it was a lot less than what I was making.

“But when Jerry told me Judge Barker was retiring, I saw it as an opportunity that might never come around again in my lifetime. If there was a possibility of getting African American representation in a higher court and people thought I was qualified, then I owed it to the citizens of Tennessee to do it.”

Bredesen appointed Justice Sharon Lee instead but then tapped McClarty to fill the seat Lee vacated on the Tennessee Court of Appeals. McClarty then won retention elections in 2010 and 2014.

McCarty faces another vote this year and says he is ready to serve eight more years if retained. Regardless of the outcome, the pages of “The Dreamer” are etched in proverbial stone, ready to inspire generations of young people to dig deep and unearth the potential buried within them.

“If I had this dream in me all these years, then it must have been there for a reason.”

“The Dreamer: John W. McClarty”

Pages: 100

Price: $16

Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing