On February 24 at the University Museum, friends and colleagues gathered to honor the late A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. as a teacher, trustee, mentor and friend whose work as a judge, legal historian and civil rights advocate made him, in Mayor Ed Rendell's words, a "champion of the voiceless." A dozen eulogies, including that of his daughter, Dr. Karen Higginbotham, and of Penn colleagues Dr. Houston Baker, Judge Louis H. Pollak, Dean Colin Diver and Dr. Renee Fox, made up this region's memorial service for the late Judge Higginbotham, who was also honored in New York and Boston. The Philadelphia service was led by Penn's Chaplain, the Rev. William Gipson. Following are the opening remarks of the President.
Remembering Leon Higginbotham
by Judith Rodin
Friends, colleagues, honored guests--welcome. To Evelyn, Karen, Stephen and Kenneth--our deepest wish is that you may be warmed and embraced by the deep respect and affection for Leon that our collective presence expresses.
Facts are nasty little things. They get in our way. They oppose, frustrate and confound us. They stand, hard, unyielding, and unavoidable between the world as it is and the world as we would have it be. No matter how we struggle and strain, the facts of this world too often seem immutable, indelible, ineffable.
Hard and immutable as is the fact of Leon Higginbotham's death, harder still--and equally immutable--is the wonderful, stubborn fact of his life and how he lived it. No one respected or appreciated facts more than Leon--but neither did he shrink from trying to change them. In his life and in his work, he recognized that neither denial, delusion, nor despair are useful responses to even the most distressing and depressing facts.
As a scholar and as a man, as an African American and as a judge, as a teacher and as a Trustee--he taught us all that the shortest road to the promised land runs straight through the world of hard, cold facts.
This was a road he knew well--and one can see it plainly in his writings.
With care and precision--and exhausting detail--he documented the long, dark history of slavery and discrimination. He dug up and brought into the light of day the deeply embedded meanings, assumptions, and responsibilities that we have all--every one of us--inherited from that past.
In his approach to the facts, Leon exhibited the finest standards of academic and legal scholarship: clarity, honesty, rigor and precision. Yet his enviable respect for facts did not blind him to the possibilities--and the necessity--of transcending them.
Rather, his clarity of perception and responsibility to the facts gave impetus and energy to his struggle to change them---to lift from each of us the inherited yoke of historical circumstance and legal sophistry that once bound together slave and master, and now separates the fortunate and the disenfranchised.
He showed us that scholarship is not merely the cold, analytical, documenting and analyzing of facts. True scholarship appreciates the human dimension of those facts and gives us the levers and fulcrums to remove obstacles and alter the human landscape. He recognized that the dual obligation of scholarly responsibility is not to the facts alone, but also to the conscience that encounters those facts.
In his absence, the yoke of those responsibilities now falls upon each
of us. But his presence among us has made our burden lighter, and enriched
Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 23, March 2, 1999