Celebrating Black History Month 2021

In honor of Black History Month in 2021, we asked several African American judges in Georgia who mentored, inspired, and helped them along the way. This February, we celebrate the people who helped lift others into judicial leadership roles.

Each weekday we will post a new response on our social media pages; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Sometimes the social media posts will be shortened to stay within a certain length, but the full responses can be found here.

February 26

Who were your mentors?
“There were several. My small group Bible study leader in college, Forrest Collier; my first boss in the Tax Section of the Law Department, Dan Formby; my dear friend, the late Chief Justice P. Harris Hines; and probably a couple of others.”

Chief Justice Harold D. Melton, Supreme Court of Georgia

February 25

“My Mississippi-born, raised, and educated parents are my inspiration. My parents were both educators with graduate degrees. My father born in 1918, was a voter rights advocate, school administrator, and then a real estate broker and my mother spoke three languages. And, it didn’t insulate them. I approach the legal system as I do because it is important to me that the people in our system, irrespective of status, are seen and heard. My parents experienced a generation where the law was not always just. This overreach and impact formed the basis of my activation and advocacy. They moved to Georgia, worked hard, and succeeded in loving each other and raising a strong, healthy family, and giving us the support to share our gifts and empower others.”

Judge Cassandra Kirk, Fulton County Chief Magistrate

February 24

“My inspiration has always been my mother, Gloria Martin Crafton, and my late maternal grandmother, Beatrice Martin. They are both strong, determined Black women who defied the odds in their own way.   My mother started out as a volunteer in my younger brother’s kindergarten classroom. She decided that she enjoyed working with children so she got a certificate in early childhood education which was a total change from the factory linework she previously did.  My grandmother was a domestic worker who later attained an LPN certificate in the 1940’s and purchased a home for her family in Edgewood in 1959.  They taught me to live by faith, work hard to pursue my dreams and help others to pursue their dreams along the journey.”

Judge Temika W. Murry, Juvenile Court of DeKalb County

February 23

“As we celebrate Black History Month, I reflect on my recent appointment as the first African American Chief State Court Judge of Rockdale County and the many people who served as mentors to help shape my legal and judicial career. My first mentor and employer was Lester B. Johnson III. Attorney Johnson taught me the value of hard work and that if I developed the necessary skills and maintained integrity, my reputation would create opportunities for me. Another person who guided me along the path to the judiciary was the late Judge Willie J. Lovett, Jr. Not only was Judge Lovett a friend who I could count on to give it to me straight, he was a mentor as well who helped me make some difficult decisions throughout my career. Finally, I will always appreciate the time and wisdom invested in me by Justice Robert Benham. Justice Benham was the first African American to accomplish many things on his path to the Supreme Court of Georgia and he always made time to consult with and encourage others to become better attorneys and judges. I am truly grateful to Justice Benham and others who paved the way for me and my fellow jurists to serve as judges in our communities. Just as others have invested their time and professional wisdom in me, I am committed to lighting a path for aspiring jurists. None of us achieved our current status without guidance and support. I plan to pay it forward.”

Judge Clarence Cuthpert, Jr., State Court of Rockdale County.

February 22

At the age of 7, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. Becoming a judge seemed farfetched UNTIL I attended the swearing-in of the Hon. Patsy Y. Porter. To see a woman who looked like me become a judge both inspired and empowered me that the same was indeed a possibility for me. In that moment, the limits that my adolescent mind had placed on me were destroyed and replaced with a “YES, I can” mentality! My trajectory was forever changed. Along this journey, I have been blessed to be trained, helped, inspired, mentored, and molded by a myriad of phenomenal people (legal and nonlegal) – far too many to name. Lawyers and judges alike have graciously taken me under their wing and poured into me. My circle of support is awesome and ever-growing. I am forever grateful for all of my lessons learned and the experiences gained because they prepared me for today and the days to come. I am a product of the totality of my life’s experiences and interactions, having learned from my ups and my downs to keep moving forward. Life and the people that God has blessed me with along my journey made me a zealous advocate, dedicated community servant, and now … a compassionate jurist! I have come full circle and hopefully inspire others to have a “YES, I can” mentality and pursue their dreams without limits.

Judge Shermela J. Williams, Superior Court of Fulton County

February 19

As we celebrate our judicial trailblazers, my judicial inspiration came from former Fulton Superior Court Judge M. Gino Brogdon.  Quite the imposing figure, this legal scholar changed my understanding of judicial responsibility. He always took the bench on time, always publicly thanked his deputies and courtroom staff at the beginning of every calendar and took the time to mentor new attorneys at every possibility. He was known to treat criminal defendants with respect and humanity and often shared insights on how one could overcome obstacles, provide for their family and how to become productive members of society.  By the end of his lectures, the impact that he had on defendants was palatable- they wanted to be respected in his eyes and society’s eyes after hearing the benefits of living responsibly.   Making a daily impact on people’s lives is what made me seek judicial office. Judge Brogdon continues to be my beacon of greatness as I develop my judicial personality as a new judge.  I am honored to have soaked up his knowledge and mannerisms and grateful for his continued mentorship. For Black History Month, I salute M. Gino Brogdon for his compassion, love of the law, and accepting his civic responsibility to teach others and improve lives.

Judge Kenya M. Johnson, Probate Court of Fulton County

February 18

Who mentored you?

I have enjoyed mentorship from a number of people throughout my Judicial career. Any new judge has the potential to be a good judge, but if you want to be a great judge, it is imperative to identify, as early as possible, an experienced judge who is willing to engage with you in an ongoing basis. That judge should be accessible, and  committed to engaging with you in open, honest, conversations. Mentorship is as essential as the air we breath. The two mentors I rely on most are former DeKalb Chief Magistrate Winston Bethel and current Fulton State Court Judge Patsy Porter. Both are always there for me to provide guidance, or on occasion, just listen. 

Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson, Magistrate Court of DeKalb County 

February 17

Who inspired you?

My Mother, Florence V.P. Tracey

Chief Judge Nailah Grant McFarlane, Chief Judge Nailah Grant McFarlane  

February 16

“Since I am a Probate/Magistrate Judge, I had three mentors, Judge Helen Harper (Probate mentor), Judge Johnnie Warren (Magistrate mentor) both from Laurens County and Justice John J. Ellington, from Treutlen County.  Justice Robert Benham and Judge Horace Johnson are the most inspiring persons to me.  Both of these exceptional men are well respected jurist not only by their peers but also by the community”

Judge T.J. Hudson, Probate/Magistrate Court of Treutlen County 

February 15

“My parents are my biggest inspiration. They have instilled in me the importance of hard work and dedication. Through their words and actions, they have taught me to always respect myself, treat others with respect and to always give my very best in everything that I do. This foundation has carried me to where I am and will continue to carry me moving forward.” 

Judge Alyssa Blanchard 
Magistrate Court of Cobb County

February 12

Who mentored you to get where you are?
The late Honorable Matthew J. Perry, Jr., Federal District Court Judge in South Carolina “

Who inspired you?
My high school music teacher Nora Canton and Civil Rights Attorney Rose Sanders of Selma Alabama.”

Who helped me along the way?
“God and retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane.”

Associate Judge Gary Washington 
Probate Court of Rockdale County

February 11

I have been inspired by the trailblazers in the profession: Justice Thurgood Marshall, Justice Robert Benham, Judge Clarence Cooper. The trailblazers exemplified the characteristics of intellectualism, integrity, determination and leadership while working at the highest levels of our profession. Also, I was both mentored and inspired by Judge Willie Lovett. As my mentor and friend, Judge Lovett showed me that the best part of this profession is having the opportunity to positively impact the lives of the people who need our help the most.

Associate Judge Coy J. Johnson, Jr. 
Fulton County Juvenile Court 

February 10

I was inspired to become a judge by the late Honorable Barbara A. Harris. As a judicial trailblazer and a founder of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorney, Judge Harris inspired and influenced countless judges and attorneys throughout Georgia and the United States. I met Judge Harris when I was assigned as the solicitor in her courtroom in the City of Atlanta Municipal Court. I observed her dispense justice with professionalism, acumen, empathy and a dash of humor for many years. I was fortunate that over the years we developed a relationship, and she took a personal interest in my career. Judge Harris eventually gave me the proverbial “shoulder tap” indicating that I should seek a judgeship. Her confidence and support were invaluable and led me to my current position on the bench. Judge Harris passed away approximately three months before I was sworn in as a Judge in the Magistrate Court of Fulton County, but her spirit was with me that day and always. I was very blessed that she passed my way.

Judge Sheryl Barnes 
Fulton County Magistrate Court 

February 9

The Honorable Michael Hancock, was my first boss just after law school.  He selected me to be his law clerk and immediately I knew that he would be more than a boss, but also a father figure.  As the first African American Superior Court Judge in DeKalb County, he understood the importance of leadership and service in the community and that every decision he made had to be well-reasoned and done in excellence.  That experience shaped me as a young attorney to provide the utmost level of professionalism and service to my clients in practice and it has carried through in how I manage cases and deal with the public as a Judge.

Chief Judge Asha Jackson, Superior Court of DeKalb County.

February 8

I credit much of my success to my mentors, Dr. Walter Kimbrough and Attorney Adria Kimbrough. I met them both as a freshman honor student at Albany State University. The Kimbroughs picked up where my parents left off, playing a critical role in my young adult life to ensure I made sound decisions and had a firm foundation to accomplish my goals. Over the last 18 years, I have benefitted greatly from their mentorship. I endeavor to do for others what they have done for me.

Presiding Judge Le’Joi N. Williamson, Civil and Magistrate Court of Richmond County

February 5

“I have been inspired the most by my late mother, Stella Louise Malone Higgs. She is the most selfless person I have ever known.  Coming from very humble beginnings in Tarboro, NC, my mother, showed me what it meant to be a community servant in every sense of the world. Her compassion for people and commitment to doing the right thing was contagious. It is this desire to serve that led me to become a lawyer and now a judge. I look forward to serving the people of Gwinnett County in this new capacity with the same courtesy, compassion, and commitment to justice that was instilled in me at a very early age.”

Judge Veronica H. Cope, State Court of Gwinnett County

February 4

As we take extra time in the month of February to celebrate the contributions of black Americans to U. S. History, I celebrate not only the monumental black Americans whose legacies inspire me, but also the black American heroes in my personal life whose examples of discipline, social awareness and service are the source of my core values and have guided my life and career.My two baby brothers and I grew up in South Central Los Angeles with two working class parents who centered our lives around church. I trained to serve on the church’s youth usher board under the leadership of the senior usher, a stern neat black man with a booming voice and unwavering reverence for the church; he taught me discipline, responsibility and respect for the sanctity of institutions. As I watched my mother and the church’s women’s ministry – the first social activists I knew – spreading awareness about apartheid and organizing support for black Africans struggling under that oppressive system, I began to understand that all our lives are intertwined and we must join together to confront injustice. My father was active in the church’s homeless ministry and got our entire family involved serving meals in soup kitchens and distributing clothes and personal items in the community; these encounters taught me to see the humanity in every individual no matter their circumstances. The lessons I learned growing up, in my community, in my church, from the heroes in my daily life fortified in me values of service, integrity, empathy and scholarship. In my mind, these values are the underpinnings of the field of law, so becoming an attorney was my natural course. I have brought these values with me each day in my career as a public servant working with municipal and county governments to serve local communities. And these values are central in my role as a juvenile court judge serving children and families in some of their most vulnerable life situations. So, while I pay homage to the trails blazed by black American attorneys and the valuable role they have played in the evolution of our legal system, I also give thanks to the black heroes in my daily life who have equipped me to continue forging paths toward a more just society.

Assoc. Judge Shalanda M. J. Miller
Fulton County Juvenile Court

February 3

“It is difficult for me to name just one person who has inspired me because I have been blessed to have a number of dynamic people, particularly Black female judges and lawyers, mentor and sponsor me throughout my career. Early in my career, from the time that I was a law student, I was introduced to the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, GABWA, as she is affectionately called. Because of my introduction to GABWA, I did not have to go very far to find women who were creating, changing, and shaping history. The women of GABWA, who were making HERstory by breaking down barriers and forging new paths wherever they went, helped to create opportunities for me. Many of these women coached me, hired me, mentored me, opened doors for me, ushered me into rooms, and gave me a seat at the table.  So, I honor each of those women, GABWA women, who live out their legacies daily through their pursuit of justice, advocating for the rights of others, and commitment to service. These women continue to remind me that I sit in a unique position to influence our community and our broader society. It is on the shoulders of these women on which I stand, Black women, who extended a hand to me, and who continue to hold me up. I owe each of them a debt of gratitude, because I truly am, because of each of them.”

Judge Sonja Brown
Cobb County Magistrate Court

February 2

I had a few mentors that helped me. My law school professor, Ms. Carpenter, who had been the only woman in her law school class, really encouraged me. I was married and pregnant while in law school, and I had a few male professors who predicted that I would fail and told me as much. However, my professor Christopher Darden, once the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, was the exception. He was so supportive. Far and away, however, my biggest inspiration was my mother! She was poor, but she worked to put herself through nursing school. She was always my biggest cheerleader.

Judge Monica Wilburn, Warner Robins Municipal Court and Judge Pro Tem. of the Houston County Juvenile Court.

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