Retired Charleston judge, former ambassador challenge, entertain at MLK service
Retired Circuit Judge Richard Fields is still sharp as a whip at age 93 — and pretty funny too.
Fields received the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award Sunday night at the MLK Tri-County Ecumenical Service. Organizers with the YWCA estimated about 750 people at Morris Street Baptist Church.
The award is named after the former Burke High School student who led a group of black students to protest a segregated lunch counter at the Kress department store in downtown Charleston and went on to become the first black student at Clemson University.
Fields was followed later in the service by a rousing talk from the keynote speaker, Suzan Johnson Cook, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family and former U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom under President Obama.
Fields said he was humbled and delighted to be associated with Gantt and laughed at the notion that he was asked to keep his remarks to five minutes.
“Because of my apparent exuberance, most people don’t realize I have reached the age of 93,” he said, “and it takes me more than five minutes to do anything. … Now you give me a podium and an audience like this, and I can’t be trusted.”
Fields was the first African American since Reconstruction to open a law practice in Charleston, in 1949. He went on to become a municipal judge, a family court judge and a circuit judge.
Fields recalled a time he challenged a teacher who said people should be pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
“How can you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you have no boots?” he called out in class.
The teacher stared at him a second and said, “Dream, boy, dream.”
He was a dreamer, and an activist. In 1950, Fields helped organize the Political Action Committee to help blacks get elected. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Charleston Democrat, introduced Fields Sunday and credited his advice and friendship for much of his own success.
“He is deserving of this award like no other person I know,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn received the Gantt award in 1994. Fields presented it to him.
Cook served under Obama for two years ending in October 2013. She recalled how it felt to be sitting across from Obama on the presidential plane when her mother used to pick cotton in North Carolina.
“There are so many people who are still in the fields,” she said. “And if all of us don’t make it, none of us make it.”
A Baptist minister, she had the crowd cheering and waving their hands at times. She drew on the biblical story of Moses standing by the Red Sea with pharaoh’s armies bearing down on him and the other former slaves. God asked Moses what was in his hand; Moses said he had a staff. God told him to raise up the staff, and the waters parted.
“We’ve got to use what’s in our hands,” she said. “We have to get our people to the other side of what they’re facing now.”
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.