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The Nation’s First African-American U.S. Magistrate Speaks at ASU

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Author: Timothy C. Ervin

Release Date: Jun 20, 2017

The Honorable Judge Arthur Burnett, Sr., who served as the nation’s first African-American U.S. Magistrate, delivered the University’s Sesquicentennial Lecture Series address on June 20.


“I am here to tell students that they can overcome anything if they develop strong work ethics,” said retired Judge Arthur Burnett, Sr., America's first African-American United States magistrate judge. Burnett delivered Alabama State University’s Sesquicentennial Lecture Series address on June 20. The series celebrates the University’s 150th anniversary.

Throughout his speech, Burnett shared his personal perspectives of coming from humble beginnings to graduating at the top of his class at Howard University. He also recounted his involvement with civil rights in multiple ways throughout the course of his career. Burnett said that he was a child when he realized his greater calling in life.

“Since I was five or six years of age, I was drawn to social injustices,” Burnett said. “When I was 12 years of age, I felt called to the ministry but I decided that I just didn’t want to preach to people just on Sundays, I wanted to do it 24/7 and change society.”

During college and law school, Burnett was an avid supporter of abolishing segregation in schools and in public life.  He continued to promote equal rights during his 55 years as a lawyer, 40 of which he served as a judge.

From 1961 to 1964, Burnett worked in the Department of Justice with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to promote equality and fairness in our criminal justice system.  In 1968, he served as legal advisor to the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia to ensure they complied with the law and respected the rights of people of color. Burnett also held appointed positions under Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

In 1969, when Burnett became the first African American to hold the position of United States Magistrate Judge, he worked to reform bail practices and preliminary hearings and to promote judicial education to bring about equality in the treatment to all persons appearing in the federal court system. He went on to become a general jurisdiction court judge and set an example of model court operation in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for seventeen years. Now retired from the bench, Burnett serves the national executive director of the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition Inc.

“I wanted to change society in America where people are judged based on the quality of their performance, their intellectual ability and their talents,” Burnett said. “So, instead of attending school to be a farm expert, I attended Howard University and excelled and ended up number one in my class.  This goes to show you that you can come from humble origins and still excel if you are motivated.”

Judge Burnett’s speech was sponsored by The Harold L. Murphy Graduate School, ASU’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

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