Judge Cecil F. Poole was the first African American US Attorney in the United States in 1961. Image courtesy of SF Chronicle.

Cecil Poole was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 25, 1914 and was the youngest of three siblings. He was four years old when his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he would spend the rest of his childhood. Poole was involved in the black empowerment movement throughout his life, beginning with his membership in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the University of Michigan, the first African American Greek lettered fraternity, and the founding of the Gamma Chi Lambda graduate chapter in San Francisco. Poole earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of Michigan in the late 1930s. He then earned his JD degree at Harvard Law School in 1939. By 1940, he joined the Pennsylvania bar and was then drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.

Even in the military, Cecil Poole’s drive was apparent and he quickly moved from being assigned to an all-black segregated unit, used mostly for manual labor, to a First Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s office, where he served adjudicated courts-martial. After serving for nearly four years, he received an honorable discharge in 1946. Soon after, he moved to San Francisco to work as a research attorney for the West Coast Office of the Price Administration. In 1949, he worked as the Assistant District Attorney in the Office of former San Francisco District Attorney Pat Brown. Pat Brown appointed Poole as the Extradition and Clemency Secretary after Brown was elected Governor of California.

In 1961, Cecil Poole was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California by President John F. Kennedy. This appointment was momentous. Poole became the first African American U.S. Attorney in the continental United States—the first of many remarkable positions he would hold throughout his career. In the midst of the civil rights movement, there was backlash throughout the country against the Vietnam War and segregation. As U.S. Attorney, Poole faced a great deal of criticism, but he stayed true to his ideals and refused to prosecute hundreds of people who evaded the draft. He also denounced a plan to prosecute David Hilliard, a prominent Black Panther leader for an implied threat to kill President Richard Nixon. These decisions underscored Poole’s devotion to justice for his people and his willingness to support equality even when the government that employed him was actively trying to take down one of the most prominent groups fighting for equality for black people. The implications of racism and prejudice inherent in many cases were certainly obvious to an attorney who in 1958 had a cross burned on his lawn.

In the late 1960s, Poole was appointed to the bench of the Federal District Court of Northern California twice by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but both appointments were not confirmed by the politically conservative Senate. He returned to private practice in 1970 and focused on entertainment law. He represented groups like the Doobie Brothers, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane. Alongside his work in entertainment law, Poole also served as Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as teaching as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1976, Poole was again appointed to the bench of the Federal District Court by President Gerald Ford. His confirmation led to the peak of his extremely successful career. He became the first black Federal Judge in Northern California. In three years he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, making him the first black man to serve on the court and only the second to serve on any Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. His understanding and support for other marginalized groups was obvious and Poole was extremely influential in ruling in favor of Native American–Alaskan groups who were seeking sovereignty over their lands.

Judge Poole served on the court for 25 years and earned Senior Judge status in 1996. Throughout his career he was known for hiring minority law clerks as well as encouraging young black lawyers to not let obstacles stop them from advancing themselves in their careers. Poole was also inducted into the Charles Houston Bar Association Hall of Fame in 1996 in recognition for his dedication to his profession.

Cecil Poole passed away in November 1997 from pneumonia-related complications. His contributions survive to this day through his important work and the legacy that he left behind.

Anthony Norman and Kendra Wharton

Works Cited

Cecil F. Poole, “Civil Rights, Law, and the Federal Courts: The Life of Cecil Poole, 1914–1997.” an oral history conducted in 1993 by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 1997.

“Cecil F. Poole, 83, a Legal Leader for Blacks.” New York Times. 16 Nov 1997.

“Cecil F. Poole: Civil Rights Law Champion.” New Crisis Feb–Mar 1998. 105th ed., Along the Battle Line sec.: 41.

Goodloe, Trevor. “Poole, Cecil F. (1914–1997).” Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.

Wallace, Bill. “Judge Cecil Poole, Pioneering Black California Jurist.” SF Gate. 14 Nov 1997.

Fulbright, Leslie. “Some S.F. African American History Landmarks.” SFGate. 10 Feb 2012.

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