Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life

Last Updated by Dawn Bayman on

Carl Maxey was the man who would change things. Born in Tacoma and immediately adopted by a Spokane couple, Maxey was orphaned at 2 years old, then kicked out of Spokane Children’s Home at age 11, when the institution decided to “stop harboring colored children.” Maxey started from “black scratch.” Something Carl used to say, it meant starting from square one, but, by virtue of race relations at the time, it was really square zero (Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life by Jim Kershner). 

Yet, Maxey rose from his calamitous childhood to make his own opportunities. Eventually, his “spunk and athletic prowess” earned him a spot at Oregon State University, then Gonzaga University, where he would claim the 1950 collegiate boxing championship.

Always the rhetorical wit, Maxey found his calling in law, becoming the first black lawyer in Eastern Washington to pass the bar exam. Maxey displayed his juridical prowess representing high profile white defendants, as well as championing black clients, often pro bono, and using litigation to dismantle systemic oppression in the Northwest. Often, Maxey’s mere threat of a lawsuit was enough to convince bars, restaurants, clubs to desegregate.

The New York Times credits Maxey with “virtually single-handedly desegregating much of the inland Northwest.” His professional career carried with it a long list of accolades, not the least of which his appointment to the United States Civil Rights Commission by five different presidents.

His two sons, Bill and Bevan Maxey, have followed their father’s footsteps, practicing law in Spokane, pursuing justice and “excellence.” Trying to and encouraging others to “make their community a more decent, sane and hospitable place,” as Bill noted in an interview with the Inlander.

Carl Maxey took his own life in July, 1997 at age 73. Perhaps plagued by crippling self-doubts, by high blood pressure and strokes, by the overwhelming desire to self-determine, to fight for the ability to determine the ending of his life like he had fought for the rest of it.

He is and will remain a national hero, of particular importance to the Northwest. KSPS Public Television will honor his life and legacy with two very special events.

First, on Thursday, February 18th, the premiere of an original documentary “Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life” at the Bing Theater in Spokane, Washington, his battleground, his home.

Then, on Friday, February 19th, a Public Forum at the Gonzaga University Law School Court Room on Civil Rights in Washington: The Post-Maxey Era.

We hope you will consider joining KSPS for one or both of these events as we honor the life of a man who really changed things for our community.

For more information or to buy tickets, see the KSPS Carl Maxey community page.

A heartfelt thanks to the many organizations who made this documentary and associated events possible: the Spokane County Bar Association, Spokane County Bar Association Diversity Section, Humanities Washington, Loren Miller Bar Foundation, Gonzaga University School of Law, Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, NAACP Spokane, YWCA, Washington State Bar Foundation and the ACLU.