From listening to my parents and grandparents wax eloquent about him decades ago, to reading the glowing local newspaper articles about him, to eventually working with him and becoming his mentee, I can unequivocally say Charles W. Bowser, Esquire, is the greatest political insider and agitating outsider in Philadelphia history.
Bowser was born on October 10, 1930, and by the end of his powerfully productive lifetime in 2010, he had reached the pinnacle of prominence and preeminence. From law and civil rights to politics and cultural activism, Bowser was an immense figure on Philly’s civic landscape. His tireless work changed the very nature of Black power in the city. And I was lucky enough to learn about it all firsthand.
In terms of our “father and son”-type love affair, let me start at the beginning. In the mid-1970s, when I was an elementary-school kid at Masterman, my mom and grandmom used to brag about Bowser as some kind of local combination of Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Then, one day in 2000, out of the blue, he called me after tracking down my number. The message on my old law-office answering machine simply said, “Hey, Michael. This is Charlie Bowser. I haven’t met you yet, 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. It couldn’t be the Charles Bowser calling me. He was a legend. A giant. Larger than life. No way!
But yes. Way! He did call me. I had to compose myself. I counted to 10, practiced my enunciation, and then nervously dialed his number. While the phone was ringing, I prayed: Oh God, please help me not sound like a stammering groupie. His office manager answered; seconds later, Charles Bowser himself was on the line, asking if we could meet. I tried to sound very cool and professional. I told him how honored I was to have received his call. Then, rather uncoolly, I told him I’d meet him anytime, anywhere, for any reason. He suggested the next day at 1 p.m. at his office.
I arrived around 12:45 at the Bowser Law Center, on 16th Street just south of Locust. The building was breathtaking: a converted three-story mansion with a chandeliered conference room and a full-service copying, faxing, postal and clerical department in the basement.
For more than two hours, he did almost all the talking. 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 close to 50 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. I still don’t.
He went on to say that young Black lawyers needed to continue the fight because we were in the best position to do it. He said we have the education, the intellect, the connections, the respect and the resources. But mostly, we have the obligation. He reminded me: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.” He talked about the past: slavery, sharecropping, peonage labor, Jim Crow, de jure segregation. And the present: de facto segregation, inadequate education, substandard housing, poor health care, employment discrimination, the criminal injustice system. He and other civil rights giants had run the obstacle-filled race. And the time eventually comes for runners to pass the baton. That’s what our meeting was all about.
At his request, I would visit his spacious second-floor office and listen to his novel legal strategies, his political insight, his real-life war stories and his wisdom. During these talks, I learned that his Bowser ancestors in America had never been enslaved. That he was a star North Philly athlete nicknamed Juicy, and co-captain of academically elite Central High’s football team. That he received a football scholarship to Temple, then worked his way through college after breaking his leg in his second year. That he graduated with a degree in journalism and served as a member of the nerves-of-steel Army bomb squad in the Korean War.
His struggles against racism were relentless. He told me of 1964, when he and the fiery Cecil B. Moore forced the city to end the Mummers’ racist tradition of blackface. After the 1990 boycott he organized against the Daily News, his 2002 demonstrations resulted in a rare public apology from that outlet.
Politically, he was a trailblazer. He was a viable Philadelphia Party candidate for mayor in 1975 and a formidable Democratic primary candidate in 1979. In 1978, he stopped the racist Mayor Rizzo political juggernaut — it sought to change the City Charter so Rizzo could run for a third term — cold in its tracks.
He empowered Blacks economically as executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee, politically as deputy mayor, and civically as executive director of the Philadelphia Urban Coalition.
He promoted change in the court system as a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Judicial Reform and was special counsel to the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
As a member of the MOVE Commission, in 1986 he helped write a scathing report about the city’s darkest hour, and in 1989 he penned an even more scathing book, Let the Bunker Burn, calling for the indictment of city and law enforcement officials.
Civil rights legal strategist Charles Hamilton Houston once said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Mr. Bowser (never “Charlie” to me, despite his requests) remains the very personification of a social engineer. He was more: a social scientist, a social strategist, a social reformer.
But at his core, he was a Black man. Each time he spoke, it was first and foremost not as a lawyer, but as a Black man. And to this day, I, too, refer to myself, not as a lawyer who happens to be a Black man, but as a Black man who happens to be a lawyer.
Michael Coard is an attorney, an academic, an African and, mostly, a self-described angry agitator.
Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.