This year’s Harvey Gantt Triumph Award, given for contributions to human and civil rights, will go to retired Circuit Judge Richard E. Fields, the first black attorney to open a law firm in Charleston since Reconstruction.
U.S. Congressman James Clyburn will present this year’s award today during the Martin Luther King Tri-County Ecumenical Service at Morris Street Baptist Church.
Now 93, Fields went on to serve as a judge in the municipal, family and circuit courts. He retired in 1992.
“He spent his life building consensus between groups of people, and that certainly wasn’t easy,” said Clay Middleton, chairman of the award committee, which includes one of Gantt’s sisters.
When Middleton called Fields to let him know he’d be receiving the award partly for this reason, Fields responded: “Well, that’s what your supposed to do!”
“That’s Judge Fields for you,” Middleton added.
In 1950, Fields was among those who formed the Charleston County Political Action Committee to organize black voters and to elect black residents to political office.
He later was elected a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Born and raised in Charleston, Fields graduated from the Avery Institute in 1940, then the Howard University School of Law before returning to his hometown to open a law office. His clients included African-Americans unable to find fair and equal treatment elsewhere.
“He really didn’t care about the judge or jury,” Middleton said. “His goal was to get justice for his clients.”
Fields also served in a wide range of community service roles. He sat on Claflin College’s board for five decades. He also served on the boards of the Charleston County Chamber of Commerce, Bon Secours-St. Francis Hospital, Charleston County United Way and others.
“He is as active and savvy now as he was when he returned to Charleston in 1949 to open his law office,” Middleton said. “He always has an opinion and thinks about tangible ways to make a difference.”
The YWCA Greater Charleston and the City of Charleston sponsor the award, presented each year since 1983 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.
It is named after Charleston native Harvey Gantt, a Burke High graduate whose efforts to enroll at Clemson University ignited a historic clash over racial segregation. The battle ended in 1963 when a federal court ordered Clemson to admit Gantt, the school’s first black student.
He later became the first black mayor of Charlotte.
Past award recipients include U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis; the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, executive director of the national NAACP; and civil rights leader and union organizer Mary Moultrie.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.