By C. Leigh McInnis
An excerpt from Psychedelic Literature
I’m begging y’all to watch this film because one of the main characters is Attorney Halbert Dockins who is one of my most significant mentors. “The Burial” shows that Attorney Dockins was pivotal to Attorney Willie Gary winning the case, while highlighting what a great scholar and man he is. Next to my pops and my uncles, only JSU Professor Dr. Ivory Phillips and Mr. Climent Edmond have had as much influence on the scholar and man that I have become as Attorney Dockins.
Most importantly, he is someone whose life choices affirmed for me that I was doing the right thing by following my heart to become a writer. So, please watch this film because y’all will get to see the portrayal of a man who is one the smartest and most caring people I’ve ever met in my life.
Additionally, as the film shows, Attorney Dockins is a selfless human being who puts his client’s interest before his ego.
Now, lemme give y’all a li’l backstory about the role that this man played in my life. First, Attorney Dockins is one of my mentors who knew my pops before he knew me. Along with being a civil rights activist and former executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, my pops worked for thirty-plus years as a senior counselor at the Hinds County Juvenile and Youth Detention Center where he, among other things, instituted a parenting program that greatly reduced the recidivism rate of the young people whose lives were entrusted to him.
The problem is that for many of those years, he and a couple of other counselors were in this fight alone. Before 1989 when Judge Houston Patton became the first African American to serve as the youth court judge in Hinds County, all of the youth court judges were white and racist, and most of the lawyers were white and racist or just didn’t give a damn about the children. So, when Attorney Halbert Dockins showed up as the court-appointed defender – someone who saw a child rather than a criminal when he looked at the children – my pops knew that he had an advocate in this fight.
It didn’t take long for those two to become a dynamic duo who understood that the children in their care needed love, redirection, and, most importantly, counseling and nurturing rather than jail time. They gave the judges fits, and they often found innovative ways to help young people understand the consequences of their behavior while working to ensure that those children didn’t become cattle in the pipeline from schoolhouse to jailhouse.
One story my pop would often tell about Attorney Dockins is how he couldn’t be intimidated or sidetracked by racist Judge Karen Gilfoy. She had the habit of turning her back to the attorneys when she couldn’t get her way and remaining on the bench with her back turned until the attorneys would just leave. She pulled this tactic with Attorney Dockins. But, when she peeked over her shoulder, she saw that Attorney Dockins simply took his seat, put his feet on his desk, and said, “Judge, I have all day to be here. So, take your time, get yourself together, and when you are ready to turn around and resume this hearing, I’ll be right here waiting on you.”
According to former senior youth court counselor Chuck Dawkins, “Hal was a great public defender for the children. He was a go-getter. He enjoyed the challenge. We often had a full house with all types of crazy cases, and Hal was a dedicated attorney who, like your pops, could plow through those cases and find the best solutions for the children.”
I met Attorney Dockins while I was a junior at Jackson State University. I had recently returned after using the fall of my junior year to complete Basic Training and AIT for the Mississippi National Guard where I was certified as a 41D aka paralegal aka legal specialist.
When I returned from AIT, my pops called Attorney Dockins and said, “Do something with the boy.” And, he did. 1990 to 1993 were some of the best years of my life, especially as I grew to understand what it means to be a professional and what it means to be a Black man working at the highest level surrounded mostly by white folks who don’t believe you should be there and who are doing everything they can to ensure that you won’t be there for long.
[He showed me this] First as a lawyer with his own practice and then later with noted criminal defense attorney Dennis Sweet, III. Yet, more than being just great lawyers, Dockins and Sweet were dedicated to locating and preparing the next generation of Black lawyers as their offices were filled with Black interns who attended Jackson State and Tougaloo College. When I tell you that the interns who worked under Dockins and Sweet were some young guns who later became legal superstars, look no further than JSU alum and current U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves who was just affirmed as the first African American to serve as Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. But, there is also Tougaloo alum Attorney Azande Wallace Williams who is both an accomplished attorney, having served as the Deputy City Attorney, and a staple in the Jackson community who continues to coordinate various social and cultural enrichment programs for Black children.
Unfortunately for my parents, I was only interested in being a trifling writer. Yet, true to his character and keeping his word to my pops about “doing something” with me, Attorney Dockins gave me the room, the opportunity, and the push to go from being a runner (whose sole job was to file documents with the court) to handling key research for many of his cases, learning how to certify title searches, and drafting many of the documents for his divorce and estate cases. I even got to do the primary research for an eminent domain case he was working with some other lawyers.
Furthermore, Attorney Dockins wasn’t tight with the purse strings as I also went from earning whatever was a few dollars above minimum wage in 1990 to earning close to $500 a week, depending on what I was doing that week, which ain’t bad for a trifling writer who was still an undergrad student.
Yet, here is my real tribute to Attorney Dockins. I was able to flower despite how poorly I failed a few times. Attorney Dockins always saw what I could be rather than focusing on what I was at that moment, which is also why he was such an excellent defender of the children in youth court.
Working with Attorneys Hal Dockins and Dennis Sweet, III, took all my parental lessons and book learning and made it all concrete, helping me to be the person my parents wanted me to be and the person my community needs me to be.
Next, Attorney Dockins is essentially responsible for me deciding as a undergrad senior that I was going to be a writer and that I wasn’t going to have a “fallback” plan. It was writer or nothing for me. His first law partner, Attorney Patricia Wise, along with Attorney Denise Sweet Owens, became the first two African-American female chancellors in Mississippi when they were elected to the Hinds Chancery bench in 1989. By 1991 or so, the Afro-Mississippi Democratic machine, which included my pops, was looking for another Black attorney to run for judge. So, the consortium had decided on Attorney Dockins as the next judge. When they met at his office to tell him that he was the chosen one, Attorney Dockins said, matter-of-factly, “I went to law school to be a lawyer,” and that was the end of the conversation.
I know that seems simple, but it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen – a Black individual telling a group of organized Black do-gooders that he has plans for his own life. That simple phrase, “I went to law school to be a lawyer,” immediately became etched in my head, and, from that moment, I was a writer and nothing else.
To this day, I have never defined myself as anything other than a writer. I’m not an activist. I’m not a community organizer. I’m not a do-gooder. I’m a writer. That was my plan, and I stuck to it despite any of the hell or high water that came my way. Of course, my parents supported me in any life decision.
But, once again, the theory that I could be anything I wanted to be, which was given to me by my parents, was made material in that short phrase by Attorney Dockins. He is a key brick in my foundation.