McGuireWoods’ Brad Kutrow wrote an online opinion article for the April 20, 2021, issue ofThe Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer about U.S. District Judge James B. McMillan, a former McGuireWoods partner who established himself in the Charlotte community and became a “precedent-setting champion of racial equity.”
Kutrow’s op-ed, “In North Carolina, an unlikely champion of equity, 50 years ago,” chronicled McMillan’s personal and professional journey to become the judge who ordered the desegregation of the Charlotte public school system. So unpopular was McMillan’s decision that community opponents picketed the courthouse and his home, sent him death threats and ostracized him. Still, in April 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld McMillan’s decision in the landmark case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and, by extension, his endorsement of busing to alleviate racial inequity in schools.
“Why was McMillan — perhaps more boldly than any other southern judge — able to set aside his preconceptions, listen to evidence and arguments with an open mind, and order a controversial remedy for past segregation?” Kutrow wrote. In answer, his article delved into McMillan’s role models and his modest upbringing in the 1920s on a sharecrop farm during a no-money economy, where everyone worked and played together, regardless of race.
After earning his law degree from Harvard and serving in World War II, McMillan joined McGuireWoods predecessor firm Helms & Mulliss and became a successful trial lawyer. “Juries loved him,” Kutrow wrote. “Opponents said trying a case against McMillan was like trying a case against a Boy Scout.” When nominated to become a judge, McMillan chose public service over that successful practice and made history by upholding his oath to “do equal right” to all.