A Legal Precedent

Thirty-three years after he became Emory's first full-time African-American law student, Marvin S. Arrington '67L is still effecting social change

by John D. Thomas

In 1965, Marvin S. Arrington '67L transferred from the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., to the Emory law school. He had grown up in Atlanta, had majored in sociology on a football scholarship at Clark College, and was anxious to return to the city he loved. But feelings of anxiety accompanied the move; he and his friend Clarence Cooper, who also transferred from Howard, were about to become the first full-time African-American law students at Emory.

To make matters worse, Arrington's run-down Renault conked out on Ponce De Leon Avenue, causing him and Cooper to be several hours late and making them even more uptight about their arrival. But when they finally got to Emory, their feelings of trepidation were unfounded, and the integration of the law school began smoothly.

"Clarence and I pretty much stayed to ourselves and did our work," recalls Arrington, speaking from his thirty-fifth-floor corner office at his downtown Atlanta law firm. "We didn't have people jumping up and down because we sat next to them. And friends made during law school have been lifetime friends."

One of those friends, J. Ben Shapiro '64C-'67L, remembers Arrington and Cooper as typical law students. "When Marvin and Clarence came to law school it was the first time a lot of us, including me, had ever had exposure to black classmates," says Shapiro, who practices law in Atlanta. "It was a great experience. They were good guys, just like anybody else. They had the same ambitions and work ethic as everybody else."

Those ambitions would propel Arrington to the heights of politics and the legal profession in his native city. A well-known attorney, he was named one of Atlanta's twenty-five best lawyers by Atlanta Magazine in 1983, and in 1993, Black Enterprise magazine named his firm, Arrington and Hollowell, one of America's top black law firms. Arrington also recently completed a sixteen-year run as president of the Atlanta City Council. (Clarence Cooper also went on the distinguish himself, and is now U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Georgia.)

"Marvin Arrington and his colleagues who led the integration of the law school have become major leaders in the legal profession and in the community," says Howard O. Hunter, dean of the Emory Law School. "Arrington took the principles of law that he learned at Emory and brought them to life in his public role as a civic leader and as one of the architects of modern Atlanta. Throughout his professional life, he has maintained his close ties to Emory as a trustee, an alumni leader, a mentor for students, and as a friend to many of the faculty. He also has increased the Arrington family connections to Emory by enticing his niece Jill, his nephew Joe, and his son, Marvin, to attend Emory Law School. Four Emory law degrees in a single family is something of a record."

Arrington attended Clark College during the height of the civil rights movement. While he was an undergraduate, many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, and Shirley Chisholm, came to Atlanta, and Arrington's exposure to them inspired him to pursue a career in law.

"I'd seen people arrested for trying to open up and integrate the system," he says. "I had seen Don Hollowell [former legal counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.], who is now the retired senior partner at this firm, in court, and I said to myself, I would like to be as sharp as that guy, as bright as he is, and defend people's civil rights. That's what motivated me. I recognized that the law was a tool for making social change. I knew that if you got into the system, that sooner or later there were going to be black lawyers, black judges, black prosecutors, and if we stayed focused, we could make a change in the system."

Arrington's involvement in the system went beyond merely practicing law. After graduating from Emory, he worked as a field repre-sentative for the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Arrington worked in South Carolina, where his duties included implementing and improving education and health-care programs. The experience proved to him that government could make a difference in people's lives, and in 1969 when community leaders encouraged the twenty-eight-year-old Arrington to run for a seat on the Atlanta Board of Aldermen (the precursor of the Atlanta City Council), he accepted the challenge. Arrington won his first political contest, becoming the youngest person ever elected to that body.

In 1980, he was elected president of the city council and was subsequently re-elected four times. Arrington looks back with pride on what he was able to accomplish during his more than twenty-five years on the city council. He counts as highlights of his political career his involvement in bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, introducing legislation that made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a city holiday, and helping start the Hank Aaron Rookie League program to provide athletic opportunities for inner-city youth.

Arrington may be best remembered for his role in helping revitalize Atlanta's zoo. In the early 1980s, conditions at the facility were deplorable, and one writer described it as the "worst zoological ghetto in the nation." Arrington devised a plan to issue bonds to finance the zoo's renovation. More than a decade later, Zoo Atlanta is considered one of the best facilities of its kind in the nation.

"Marvin Arrington discovered the mechanism for managing the zoo as a non-profit corporation, utilizing the Stadium Authority to issue much-needed, government-backed revenue bonds for the zoo," Terry L. Maple, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, told Emory Magazine. "It was an ingenious solution which jump-started a new zoo vision. Time and time again Marvin Arrington has proved to be a great and loyal friend to Zoo Atlanta."

Arrington's political career recently came to an end after he lost the 1997 Atlanta mayoral race. It was a bruising, often personal contest, and Arrington sees it as emblematic of how politics in Atlanta have changed. "There is a mean-spiritedness in politics now," he says. "The win-at-all-costs approach is almost like Chicago politics, and I never thought I would live to see that in the city of Atlanta."

The experience did not embitter Arrington, who says young people should be encouraged to consider politics as a way of serving their community. "There are always going to be lawyer jokes and politician jokes. But we need good young people going into politics. We need to support those good young people and let them know that it's an honorable life."

Now that he is out of office for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, Arrington says he is spending more time with his family and sleeping a bit later. Some friends and colleagues, however, believe he has not yet run his last race. "He's got politics in his blood, and I think he'll run maybe for the Fulton County Commission or for Congress," says former classmate Shapiro. "I don't think he's going to stay away from politics."

Arrington himself isn't discounting the possibility. "I'm keeping my options open," he says. "Like Sam Nunn often says, Never say never. I would like to have been mayor of my native city, it's one of my life's ambitions, but it will have to wait. We are in the middle of a governor's race, a judiciary race, all types of races. But when the dust settles, I'll sit down with my family and supporters and reassess what I need to be doing with my life.

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