From Prison Cell To Congress (How to Step Higher)

“My philosophy is that children should be ahead of their parents, should climb a step higher and make a contribution to the family and to society.” -Minnie Crockett (George’s mother)1

During America’s “Cold War” past there was no open war underway. The era was defined by threats, propaganda and fear. America’s enemy was not a single person, country or race. Rather, it was a political idea: Communism. To be accused of being an American enemy, you didn’t have to call yourself a communist or even hold communist beliefs. Simply being friends with someone who attended a talk on communism was enough to get you investigated and in some instances arrested. After a list of soviet spies working in America surfaced and encryption devices were decoded, communist paranoia crept into every American household. Even your closest neighbor could be a cleverly disguised communist.

In response to the perceived growth of the Communist Party of the United States, several Communist Party leaders were prosecuted by the federal government. The prosecution did not assert that the defendants had a specific plan to violently overthrow the U.S. government, but rather alleged that the Communist Party’s philosophy generally advocated the violent overthrow of governments.2

The defendants countered that they advocated a peaceful transition to socialism, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and of association protected their membership in a political party.

In 1948, George W. Crockett, Jr. volunteered to join the legal team that defended the Communist Party leaders. It turned out to be one of the lengthiest trials in American history to date. While the trial was underway, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon and American public sentiment against communist reached a new height.

During the trial, the judge instructed Crockett and the legal team not to make objections that could be interpreted as communist political propaganda. The attorneys responded that they had a duty to their respective clients to object. At the conclusion of the trial, all of the defense lawyers were sentenced to jail time for not following the judge’s instructions. Crockett was sentenced to four months.

Loyalty Lived

Crockett had options other than prison. He could have refused to surrender to prison as some of his clients did. He could have secreted away to a number of countries that were sympathetic to his clients’ cause. He could have sought violent revenge against the judge.

Crockett, however, was an American and not just an American but an American lawyer – an officer of its courts. As such, he worked within the institutions of his own government by filing an appeal to the federal appeals court. The federal appeals court reversed some specifications of contempt, but affirmed the conviction. Crockett then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where his conviction was affirmed with finality.

Crockett served four months in an Ashland, Kentucky Federal prison in 1952. After his release, he returned to the very institution that had incarcerated him – the practice of law.

Step Higher: Perseverance Past Prison

Some 14 years later, Crockett was elected Judge in Wayne County, Michigan.

One of the many cases before him followed a police officer-involved shooting outside New Bethel Baptist Church in which a Detroit police officer died. Police officers fired into and stormed the church. More than one-hundred fifty persons, including juveniles, were arrested inside the church and taken to police headquarters.

Crockett opened temporary court at police headquarters. In refusing to find probable cause to hold the people from what he termed a “collective punishment” mass arrest, Judge Crockett released 130 of the arrested persons.

Crockett believed that the clients he had represented earlier against the communism charge were wrongfully charged. He did all that he could to defend them and failed. Now, as judge he was in a position to cause a different result. The 20 or so people whose charges were supported by some reasonable evidence stayed at police headquarters. The 130 people who were overcharged were released. In 1974, Crockett was elected Chief Judge.

Make a Contribution

Crockett also served in the U.S. House of Representatives starting in 1980. His contributions were significant globally.

On Wednesday, March 28, 1990 Crockett, who was affectionately called “Judge” by his House colleagues, announced on the House Floor:

“Mr. Speaker, a few days ago the press carried the story on the death of the Honorable Harold Medina, who was the judge who presided over the famous communist trials in New York back in 1949 and 1950. In the course of that trial, Judge Medina sentenced the five defense lawyers to prison. I’m the only living survivor of those five defense lawyers.

“During the four months that I served in a federal prison, it never occurred to me that one day I would also serve in the United States Congress and be a member of the committee having oversight jurisdiction over all federal judges and all federal prisons.

“Today, Mr. Speaker, I rise to inform my colleagues that I have decided to retire from the House at the conclusion of the 101st Congress. After 68 years of working, championing unpopular causes, I’m hoping to enjoy a little time off…. I’ve been privileged to serve the people of Michigan’s 13th District in this body, and it has been a challenge and an honor I will always cherish.”

All the members stood and clapped.3


The next time you are caused to suffer ask yourself these questions:

  1. How can I step higher?
  2. How can I work inside the relationship (or organization) so that it does not happen again?
  3. What contribution can I make to change things so that others do not suffer?4

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  1. Minnie Crockett, Times-Union Journal (Jacksonville), November 23, 1969.
  2. Belknap, Michal R., “Foley Square Trial”, in American Political Trials, (Michal Belknap, Ed.), Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.
  3. Detroit Free Press, March 29, 1990, p. 15A.
  4.  © 2015 Brandon L. Blankenship. Image Liberation by jaro via flicker
About The Author

Brandon Blankenship

Brandon L. Blankenship is a continuing legal education presenter and business educator. He is the author of Unmasking Hour. He writes weekly posts on the legal industry and is a contributor to the Nobility Academy. He and his wife Donnalee live on their hobby farm south of Birmingham, Alabama.