Ward’s federal judicial career has stood as “a constant visible reminder of the power of the rule of law in ensuring equal rights,” said Chief Judge Julie Carnes.
“He will always be remembered as a trailblazer in the civil rights movement,” she said. “He had the courage to challenge a social order that limited the opportunities of its black citizens.”
A Morehouse College honors graduate with a master’s degree from Atlanta University, Ward was instrumental in desegregating the University of Georgia. He was the first African-American to sue for admission to an all-white college in Georgia when, as a prospective law student in 1950, he first challenged UGA’s refusal to admit him. After earning a law degree from Northwestern University in 1959, Ward joined a team of renowned civil rights lawyers who won the right for two African-American students — Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter — to desegregate UGA in 1961.
“His tenaciousness in attempting to be admitted to the University of Georgia law school paved the way for the later integration of Georgia’s public colleges,” said Carnes, who earned both her undergraduate and law degrees at UGA. “Judge Ward was a constant and visible reminder of the power of the rule of law in ensuring equal rights to all its citizens and of the importance of citizens and judges who insist that it do so.”
Ward told the Daily Report recently that his appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the federal bench was “the crowning achievement in my legal career.”
The retiring judge said his decision was prompted by his recent 85th birthday and a recognition that he had spent 50 years in public service — as the second African-American in the state’s history to be elected to the Georgia senate; as a Fulton County State Court judge; as the first African-American to become a Superior Court judge in Georgia, and, finally, as a federal judge.
Ward also practiced law with civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell and served as both an assistant county attorney in Fulton County and an assistant city attorney in Atlanta before embarking on his judicial career.
In a lecture at UGA in 2000, Ward called his unsuccessful fight to secure admission to the law school “a long and hard struggle” that played out over the course of a decade.
“I am proud to have played a role first as an applicant to the University of Georgia law school and then as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the officials at the University of Georgia,” Ward told the Daily Report, “although we didn’t win that case.”
U.S. District Judge Frank Hooper dismissed Ward’s case on the eve of trial in 1957, declaring it moot because Ward was, by then, a first-year law student at Northwestern. Hooper never ruled on the merits of the case.
Said Ward’s biographer, UGA professor and Dean of Social Work Maurice Daniels: “I think it took a great deal of courage to challenge the system of segregation at the time that he did because, in essence, he was challenging the governor, he was challenging the General Assembly, he was challenging the Board of Regents, he was challenging the University of Georgia. It took a great deal of courage for him and others to pursue the course of dismantling the cherished system of segregation in this state.”
When Ward filed his civil rights suit against UGA, Gov. Herman Talmadge had won office on a campaign promise that there would be no desegregation of Georgia’s public schools and colleges. Talmadge would hire his personal attorney, B.D. “Buck” Murphy, to assist UGA and the state attorney general in fighting Ward’s suit.
More than two decades later, as a U.S. senator, Talmadge would greenlight Carter’s nomination of Ward to the federal bench. Ward said that when he was sworn in as a federal judge in December 1979, he took his oath in the same courtroom where his case against UGA had been litigated.
Daniels said Ward demonstrated perseverance as well as bravery in his fight to desegregate UGA. And, he observed, “I can honestly say that he never showed any kind of animosity or any kind of negative feeling with respect to those who placed obstacles and barriers in his path.”
What Ward demonstrated, instead, Daniels said, was “an ability to forgive and look to the future and not hold hostility for what has occurred in the past.”
“It’s remarkable and extraordinary to be able to have that sense of forgiveness,” he continued. “He has made a great contribution to the cause of social justice and human dignity.”
“I stand, and many others stand, on his shoulders,” he said.
Carnes said Ward “has been more than a civil rights icon.”
“Having been treated with hostility by many lawyers and judges as he was trying to make his way in the world, he could have become bitter and responded in kind once he enjoyed power,” she said. “He never did so. He treated all with whom he came in contact — litigants, lawyers and colleagues — with kindness, charity and patience. Through his graciousness and decency, he has quietly imparted the power of good will and civility. We in the Northern District of Georgia have been privileged to serve with him.”