The tributes that rolled in when North Carolina lawyer Walter Dellinger died Feb. 16 were testimony that he was one of the nation’s great lawyers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He was 80.
In an Associated Press article, North Carolina native Jonathan Drew wrote that Dellinger’s career “marked him as one of the legal giants of our era. Many remembered — and justly celebrated — him as a brilliant and prolific scholar, a titan of the Supreme Court bar, an inspiring teacher and mentor to generations of bright proteges now in elected office, federal and state government, and on the bench.
“He was also a government lawyer whose advice was important to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Key officials in the Biden White House sought his advice almost literally until the day he died.”
His son, Hampton, recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as an assistant attorney general in the Biden administration’s Justice Department, gave this tribute to his dad, “Walter lived a wonderful and extraordinary life. He had many loves, first among them his wife Anne but also the State and University of North Carolina, the law and the rule of law, and American democracy.”
Several years ago I talked to Dellinger for a short North Carolina Bookwatch program recorded at Carolina Meadows in Chapel Hill, where he was living. He was working on a chapter of a memoir to be titled “Balcony Reserved for White Spectators.”
He explained his early awareness of the unfairness of the social system in his hometown Charlotte. In the late 1950s he was working on a construction site “where only whites could be carpenters and the black men were all laborers paid $1 an hour. As I was a temporary kid, I was assigned as a laborer. I was like the token white labor on this crew.
“What was interesting and dramatic for me was that the best carpenter by far was one of the African American men who was a laborer. He got paid as a laborer no matter what he was doing. So whenever there was a very difficult challenge to the carpentry, the on-site supervisor would ask David to take on the challenge.
“But if anybody from company headquarters arrived on the scene, I was sometimes a lookout, David had to put down his carpentry tools. He could be an expert but couldn't be caught breaking the rigid rules. That gives you a sense of how rigid the system was.”
Dellinger remembered his love of Black music and listening to WGIV, the Black radio station in Charlotte. “I listened to the gospel hour faithfully. They had a contest to see who could first identify a gospel song, and I knew immediately from the first three bars it was ‘Ride on King Jesus.’
“The prize was a one-year subscription to Ebony magazine, which in the segregated South was a whole different world, particularly the advertisements where no people of color were ever in mainstream media.”
Dellinger’s love of music led him to try to attend the Black concerts and dances at Park Center in downtown Charlotte. There is where he encountered the sign.
He explained, “In Charlotte dances that were for African Americans [they]had a balcony reserved for white spectators, so it's sort of both literal and metaphorical the notion that I was only a spectator from the balcony on what was happening with race in the South, watching what was happening in the Black community.”
After four years at UNC-Chapel Hill, three years at Yale Law School, and two years teaching at the University of Mississippi Law School, Dellinger was never “only a spectator” again.
He lived and died in the middle of our country’s struggle to eliminate the unfairness the carpenter David experienced and the legacy of the customs that put Dellinger in the balcony at Park Center dances.