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Judge draws criticism, praise

Fulton County (Ga.) Superior Court Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr. made national news this year when he ordered the white people, mostly staff and lawyers, out of his courtroom and then gave a no-nonsense wake-up call to the black defendants who were left.

Some people applauded. Others accused him of racism.

"There were some concerns expressed," Arrington said. "I responded forthright about them. People like myself, if we don't speak out, who will speak out?"

Arrington, who has been on the bench six years, said that more than 90 percent of the defendants charged with serious crimes who come before him in Atlanta are African-American and male.

In a column written for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, published shortly after the incident, Arrington, 67, wrote, "They come largely from the communities in this city where I grew up. That fact distilled in my mind as I was completing my recently published autobiography and compelled me to speak to them. I challenged those young people to get themselves together, get an education and change their lives as many before them have done."

Arrington gave the same speech a week later to everyone in his courtroom, saying he had nothing to hide. He had spoken with black defendants alone because he thought they would listen without the distractions or embarrassment of being confronted in front of a white audience.

Arrington's critics, however, questioned why he could not speak common sense in front of all listeners.

Arrington apologized, calling that move "a bad judgment call." But that has not changed his message.

A week later, he repeated his message to all present. He told the defendants, many of whom are among the 54 percent of young people who drop out of Atlanta public schools, to get a good education and make something of themselves so that the violence and crime that stems from a street drug culture wouldn't be a temptation.

The senseless violence has gotten out of hand, he told them, and he said he was tired of seeing the same faces over and over again in his courtroom.

"I wonder sometimes what in the world Dr. King and all them died for," he told the courtroom.

Sonja Feist-Price, director of the University of Kentucky's African American Studies and Research Program, said she saw news reports about Arrington one morning on CNN and then on several other news outlets.

"I appreciated what he did. He saw the need to address an issue."

She said excusing whites from the courtroom to talk with the black defendants showed compassion and concern for the defendants.

Feist-Price booked Arrington for a presentation in Lexington and then met with him in Atlanta.

"I really got a feel for his level of concern and compassion for some of us who aren't doing as well."

Arrington will be in Lexington on Saturday, 6-8 p.m. at Imani Missionary Baptist Church, 1555 Georgetown Road. The event, sponsored by the African American Studies and Research Program, is free and open to the public.

Arrington has teamed with comedians Bill Cosby and Chris Rock to start a mentoring program in Atlanta for about 600 young men. It is still in the planning stage.

Some blacks, however, have criticized Cosby's tough-love message that he first gave in 2004. Some said he was blaming victims without looking upstream to find the reason for the toxicity that has trickled down.

Cosby's core belief, that black people must rise above the obstacles racism places before them, is shared by most in the black middle class.

Even though Arrington agrees with the tough love Cosby espouses, "I am not a Bill Cosby disciple," he said. "I am Marvin Arrington. I do give credit where credit is due."

Some of that credit he gives to black female educators who kept him from taking the same path that some of those who stand before him have chosen.

Arrington's autobiography, Making My Mark: The Story of a Man Who Wouldn't Stay in His Place is the story of a man who was living in segregated neighborhoods and going to separate schools, learning from textbooks with pages and chapters missing. But those teachers turned him around, he said.

He graduated from college and then law school. In 1969, he was elected to Atlanta's city council, where he served as president from 1980 until 1997, when he stepped down to run unsuccessfully for mayor. He helped ensure the proper funding for Atlanta's zoo, secured renovations for run-down public housing when Atlanta hosted the Olympics, and takes pride in having helped facilitate Muhammad Ali's return to the ring after Ali's boxing license was suspended for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War.

But now his passion is helping young people make better choices.

He wants them to know that "Crime does not pay, and if you put a little extra effort in schoolwork and set goals and objectives, you can succeed in life."

Feist-Price agreed.

"I remember talking with Rev. (Willis) Polk, and he said we need someone to rattle our cages," she said. "We need to be informed and inspired to develop strategies and address some the issues if we really want to bring change."