The Civil Rights and Black Power movements had many heroes whose names never made it into most history books, yet their contributions to Black people’s forward movement were priceless and undeniable.
Bobby Caldwell was one such giant of the movement. Operating out of his adopted home of Houston, Caldwell, a lawyer, represented student activists, community organizers and many others, often doing so pro bono. And though he did his work in lily-white 1960s and 70s courtrooms. Time and again, he and his clients emerged victorious.
And though Caldwell was small in stature, walked with a slight limp and dealt with multiple health issues (as a polio survivor), his impact on Black Houston and beyond was bigger than the Lone Star State.
The Defender spoke with another legend of the movement, Black Panther Party and National Black United Front member John “Bunchy” Crear, who shared stories about his friend, Caldwell. This is part one of a two-part series.
DEFENDER: When you hear the name Bobby Caldwell, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
JOHN “BUNCHY” CREAR: Well, you know, I think about courage, for one thing. Because you have to understand, he started practicing law in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights Movement even got rolling strong, when they were still lynching Blacks left and right across the south, police brutality. And we still had that going on now, but it was rampant back then. All police were white. So, I think of the courage he had to stand up.
DEFENDER: Where do you think he got that courage from?
CREAR: He told me about his mother and I see where he got his courage and his fire from. He was born in Dallas, and his mother worked for a rich white family. So, she was in the kitchen with another sister. They were preparing a meal, and the white woman that they worked for came in with her baby and said that the baby’s diaper was soiled and needed to be changed. So, the other sister said, “Well, I’m gonna take care of it.” But she was trying to finish what she was doing, and a white woman came right back in there and slapped her and told her, “Didn’t I tell you that the baby’s diaper was soiled?” Well, Bobby’s mother was stirring something in a pot with a big metal spoon, and went upside the head of the white woman. She was arrested. The white man that she worked for, bailed her out of jail, but told her she couldn’t come back to work there again. So, I told Bobby, “I see where you get your fire from.”
DEFENDER: What about Caldwell’s presence?
CREAR: He got polio at three. He was a slight man. He wasn’t tall, anyway, and he walked with a limp with his right leg. And his right arm, he kept across his chest, from the polio. So, he wasn’t somebody that you look at and you’d be terrified of, or you think this is a bad, bad man. But Bobby Calwell was a bad, bad man.
DEFENDER: What about his early days as a lawyer?
CREAR: After he graduated from Texas Southern, and he first started practicing law, he said how hard it was for a Black lawyer to practice here in Houston during that time. He said, all the judges were white, all the prosecutors were white, all the juries were white. In fact, in his book that’s coming out in February, he talks about how one of the judges used the word “nigger” in the courtroom all the time toward a defendant: “That nigger here” or “that nigger needs to (do this or that.” He was saying that after he had been practicing law for about two years, he said he won some, he lost some. And, after he’d been practicing for two years, this judge came up to him after a courtroom session, and told him he was a pretty damn good lawyer. And he asked Bobby, would he like to sit down and have coffee with him and chat. And Bobby told him, “Well, I was wondering what took you so long. But no. I don’t want to have coffee with you.” So, Bobby was a man of principles. Most people would say, “Oh, this is a judge. I’d love to sit down with you.” Because you know what goes on in the courtroom scene. Everybody knows each other. The judge, the prosecutor, the bailiffs all know each other. And, he told him, “no” he didn’t want to have coffee with him. The thing about it is, he said it was hard to be a lawyer during that time. You could imagine being a lawyer, defending people who were fighting for justice for Black people.
DEFENDER: Who were some of the people Caldwell represented?
CREAR: He represented SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). And some of the first students he represented were the Texas Southern University Five. The students at Texas Southern were protesting over food and over the conditions at the school, the buildings, things like that. Well, the administration called the police. The police came and the police shot up the men’s dormitory. They said, it could have been up to 5,000 rounds they shot into the dormitory. A policeman was killed. A student was killed. Several others were injured. Well, they charged these five with the murder of the policeman. And like I said, they shot into the TSU dorm. It could have wound up like what happened in Jackson State. Police shot into the dorms at Jackson State and killed four students. People don’t talk about that, but these are things that were going on back during that time. And, they called it the “TSU Riot.” But what kind of riot is it when police fire almost 5,000 rounds? And it was 30-caliber. This is where the case turned. It was 30 caliber bullets, which were the police-issued bullets. So, they charged these five Black students. And eventually, the charges were dropped because the policeman was killed by a ricocheted bullet. In the military that’s called friendly fire.
DEFENDER: Did the TSU Five call him to represent them?
CREAR: I’m not sure. But knowing Bobby, it’s like another case later. The people, in this case, said that they didn’t know who they were gonna get as a lawyer, then Bobby came and found them and said he would represent them. And that sounds like Bobby because in the Panther Party, that was the same thing. Bobby came to us. And many, many of the stuff he did, he did pro bono. You know, Bobby could have been living in a big mansion over here on MacGregor. He lived a very humble life. He had a nice single-story home. He didn’t drive big fancy cars, but he could have had all that. His office was right over here on Riverside Drive; him and Raymond Jordan. That was his law partner. And Raymond work with him on quite a few cases; quite a few of our cases.
DEFENDER: Is there anything specific about the person, beyond the court cases, that you remember?
CREAR: Even talking to him in his older age, when we were sitting in his kitchen, it might sound corny, but when he talked about his people and injustice, he would get a twinkle in his eye, and his eyes would light up. And
DEFENDER: What other cases stand out to you?
CREAR: He represented the TSU Five at that time. And then of course, there was the case of the Texas Southern University students that marched from the campus to the Weingarten’s Grocery Store on Almeda, which had a (segregated) lunch counter. And they sat down at the lunch counter. In fact, Reverend Lawson tried to talk ’em out and doing it. And then before they marched, he prayed for him and stuff. But they went on, just like the Freedom Riders in the South, Martin Luther King tried to talk them out of doing it. But the youth, and that’s the thing about it, in the (Black Panther) Party, we say “the youth are the Revolution.” And if you look back on the Civil Rights Movement, it was the youth that fired up everything, where attention was really brought to the situation. Like the Freedom Rides. (Those TSU students who protested at Weingarten’s) were arrested and charged, and Bobby again stepped up and he represented them. He also represented Leotis Johnson, who was a student activist at Texas Southern University. And Leotis was at a party or get-together. And this undercover policeman came and gave him a joint, a marijuana cigarette.
DEFENDER: Set him up.
CREAR: Set him up. He was arrested. He was convicted. He was given 30 years in prison for one marijuana cigarette. So, Bobby didn’t represent him at his original trial. But again, Bobby stepped up and filed an appeal and got the brother outta prison; got everything overturned. And one of the funny stories, he said that once everything was over him and Leotis got invited to Washington DC to this big conference on legalizing marijuana
DEFENDER: Any other memorable cases come to mind?
CREAR: You had the students at the University of Houston who were demonstrating to establish a Black Student Union and the Black Studies program at the University of Houston.
DEFENDER: Was that Brother Omowali and crew?
CREAR: Yeah, it was Omowali. At that time, his name was Dwight Allen, Omowali Allen, and Eugene Locke. They were both arrested because they had a demonstration. Again, the university called the police. Again, they called it a riot. And they arrested Omowali and Eugene for inciting a riot. And again, this is where Eugene Locke said that they didn’t know Bobby, and that they didn’t know what they were gonna do. And Bobby came to them, and told them that he would represent them; which he did. So, again, he stepped up wherever he saw an injustice.
DEFENDER: His brother was an absolute guardian angel. That’s what I’m hearing you say.
CREAR: That’s what I’m saying. And it is a shame that, I was talking to somebody the other day, if Bobby had had the ability, because like I say, he had polio. And then, through the last few years of his life, he did the dialysis at home, and so he wasn’t as mobile as some of his peers at that time. So people didn’t see him. And then he was a very humble man. He disdained being around people that thought they were this or that or big shots or whatever, because he was a very humble man. And then they, of course, he represented Peoples Party II and the Houston chapter of the Black Panther party.