Remembering Charles Bowser

He was a black man first, a lawyer second. But in all things he was second to none

In 2000, which was five years before he retired, Charles W. Bowser, Esquire called my small solo practitioner law office and left a voice mail message. At the time, I didn’t know him personally but I certainly knew his great reputation. And that was because, in the mid-1970s when I was a young elementary school kid at Masterman, my mom and grandmom used to always brag about him as some kind of local Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Malcolm X all rolled up into one. Ever since then, I read everything I could about this thoroughly impressive man and his thoroughly impressive work.

In his phone message, Mr. Bowser simply said, “Hey, Michael. This is Charlie Bowser. I haven’t met you before, but I’ve heard some good stuff about your legal and social activism on behalf of Black folks. And I’d like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of you working with me at the Bowser Law Center.” I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t be happening. That couldn’t have been “the” Charles Bowser calling me. I wasn’t worthy. He was a legend. He was a giant. He was larger than life. He was calling me? No way! [SIGNUP]

But yes. Way! He did call me. I had to compose myself to prepare to return his call. I counted to 10, cleared my throat, practiced my enunciation, and then nervously dialed his number. While the phone was ringing, I prayed, oh god, please help me not to sound like a stammering, stuttering groupie. His office manager answered, asked who I was, and told me to hold on. Seconds later, he says thanks for returning his call and asks when can we meet. I tried to sound very cool and very professional. Before responding to his question, I told him how honored I was to have received a call from him and how even more honored I was to be speaking personally with him. I then rather un-coolly told him I’d meet him anytime anywhere for any reason. He suggested the next day at 1:00 p.m. in his office.

I arrived around 12:45 at his office, called the Bowser Law Center, located on 16th Street just south of Locust. The building was awesome, literally awesome. It was a reconverted mansion that put every other Center City law office building to shame. And it wasn’t leased. He owned it. We met in the large beautiful chandeliered conference room. For more than two hours, he did almost all the talking and I did all the listening. Despite my star-struck haze, I actually remember much of what he said at that meeting a decade ago. I recall him telling me that he was planning to retire, that he had attempted to do all he possibly could to help uplift and empower his people, that he had used the courtrooms, the boardrooms, and the street corners in those attempts, and that after more than 40 years of litigation and activism, he was ready to “pass the baton.” To me? Wow! I said wow then and I’m saying wow now. I didn’t feel worthy then and I still don’t now. He went on to say that young Black lawyers needed to continue the fight because we are in the best position to do it. He said that we have the education, the intellect, the connections, the respect, and the resources to do it. But, mostly, as he made very clear, we have the obligation. He reminded me that, “To whom much is given, much is required.” He talked about the past: slavery, sharecropping, peonage labor, Jim Crow, and de jure segregation. He talked about the present: de facto segregation, inadequate education, substandard housing, poor health care, employment discrimination, and the criminal injustice system. He and other Black civil rights and human right giants had fought the good fight by running the obstacle-filled race. And, as he put it, the time eventually comes for all runners to pass the baton. And that’s what that meeting was all about. I’ll say it again. Wow!

Mr. Bowser (never “Charlie” to me, despite his requests) was and is the personification of the first part of what preeminent civil rights legal strategist Charles Hamilton Houston meant when he proclaimed, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Mr. Bowser was unarguably a social engineer. And he was also more. In fact, he was a social scientist, a social strategist, and a social reformer.

But at his core, he was a Black man. In enthusiastic compliance with his frequent requests, I would go from my spacious third floor Bowser Law Center office to his even more spacious second floor office. I would listen attentively to his novel legal strategies, his probing political insight, his historic real life war stories, and his political wisdom. And each time he spoke, he spoke first and foremost not as a lawyer but as a Black man. That’s exactly why, since that time, I learned from him to consistently refer to myself not as a lawyer who happens to be a Black man but as a Black man who just happens to be a lawyer.

I also learned from him that his Bowser ancestors in America had never been enslaved, that as a youngster he was a star athlete from North Philly called Juicey, that he was co-captain of the football team at the academically elite Central High school, that he received a football scholarship to Temple University, that he worked his way through college after breaking his leg in his second year and therefore being unable to play football, that he graduated with a degree in journalism, that he was an accomplished and published author and poet, and that he was a member of the nerves of steel Army Bomb Squad in the Korean War. It was during that war that he came extremely close to being killed in battle after he was attacked by a knife-wielding enemy soldier in a dark and cramped foxhole, resulting in a defensively courageous but brutal hand-to-hand, life-or-death knife fight that ultimately ended with Mr. Bowser bloodied but standing and the other soldier laying dead.

In addition, I learned that he and the powerful and fiery Cecil B. Moore in 1964 forced the City of Philadelphia, using Mr. Bowser’s brain and Mr. Moore’s brawn, to stop the Mummers from continuing their racist tradition of parading in blackface. His struggles against racism were relentless. As a follow-up to his 1990 organized boycott against a local newspaper, his 2002 demonstrations resulted in a rare public apology from that media outlet for what Mr. Bowser and his followers described as repeated racist reporting. And it wasn’t just local or domestic racism that he fought. In 1985, for example, he wrote a compellingly persuasive book entitled The Apartheid Solution. Furthermore, I learned that he was a viable Philadelphia Party candidate for Mayor in 1974, that he was an even more viable Democratic primary party candidate for Mayor in 1979, and that he stopped the racist Mayor Rizzo political juggernaut cold in its tracks in 1978.

Moreover, I learned that he empowered Blacks economically as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee from 1964-1967, politically as Deputy Mayor from 1967-1969, and. civically as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Urban Coalition from 1968-1975.

And I learned that he promoted change in the court system as a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Judicial Reform from 1987-1988, provided essential legal advice to the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus as Special Counsel from 1988-2000, and helped write the rules of appellate procedure as a member of the Advisory Committee on Appellate Court Rules of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1995.

I learned, too, that as a member of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (also known as the MOVE Commission) he wrote in 1985 a scathing report and in 1989 an even more scathing book calling for the indictment of city and law enforcement officials who were responsible for the decision that resulted in the murder of 11 human beings, including five children as well as the incineration of 61 homes and two-and-a-half city blocks in a Black neighborhood.

As made clear here, Mr. Bowser was a great activist. He was also a great lawyer whose numerous victories in civil courtrooms and criminal courtrooms are legendary. For example, he was the first lawyer in Philadelphia to win a big money verdict in a police brutality case (which was affirmed on appeal) that, as he himself had conceded at trial, involved no physical contact but only mental intimidation. His skills as a trial lawyer were second to none.

But more than being a great activist and more than being a great lawyer, Mr. Bowser was a Black man — first and foremost as he would always say.

In conclusion, and in the words of this Black man as written in his 2000 essay entitled “The Great Hope of Freedom Is Not Free,” “We believed that the justice inherent in our demands would be quickly recognized and respected, but time after time we learned we were wrong. Our hopes for freedom were often rejected, but we never gave up. Each time we were knocked down by injustice, we jumped up to renew the struggle.”

And he jumped up to pass the baton. I got it. And I’m running with it. The struggle continues. But thanks to Charles W. Bowser, Esquire, the hard struggle is not as hard as it used to be.