Attorneys at War

Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason are prohibited from practicing law. But no one can silence their rage.



When Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton met with Texaco executives at the company’s headquarters in White Plains two weeks ago, two black activists were missing from the table: C. Vernon Mason and Alton H. Maddox Jr. Mason, as it turns out, couldn’t care less about attacking corporate racists. But Maddox and his ultra-black nationalist followers planned to picket Texaco — to “serve notice on all blacks there being held hostage that they do have support…” They had a far more ambitious agenda than the conciliators inside. Maddox, the self-described Attorney at War, was poised to drop a bomb on Jackson.

“Now, I get a little nervous every time I hear that Jesse Jackson is going to the scene of a crime,” he told members of his United African Movement a week before leading a Day of Protest in the oil company’s backyard. Amid snickering and guffaws from the audience, the chairman, as if on cue, paused to allow a professional heckler to offer his own view of Jackson’s motives: “Probably to work out a sellout.” Maddox went on: “You gotta make sure you send the right people to the scene of the crime, because some people have a tendency to disturb the crime scene. You need to rope it off so that some people don’t get entrée into it.”

Jackson, Maddox claimed, does not understand “the rites of warfare.” He should have met Texaco not on the company’s turf but at a “soul joint in the hood.

“What in the world is Jesse Jackson doing up at Texaco eating chicken and discussing, purportedly, black folks? What was he doing? Why did he not demand that the meeting was gonna be in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Jamaica, or the South Bronx? Why would you go up to Texaco in, of all places, White Plains?”

“Because it’s white,” said his interlocutor, chuckling.

“That is like the chicken having a dispute with the fox and going to the fox den to resolve it,” Maddox declared. “Unless the chicken knew something we didn’t know.”

Veteran Maddox watchers noted that he had excluded from his wrath the other major player in the Texaco negotiations: Al Sharpton. The mayoral candidate has a lot to thank the trial attorney for. Seven years ago, Maddox convinced a Manhattan jury to acquit Sharpton on 67 counts of fraud, grand larceny, and falsifying business records. But in the· ensuing years their friendship has been strained by that indebtedness. Maddox began to openly attack the reverend for ending decades of feuding with black politicians such as former mayor David Dinkins, for advocating nonviolence, and for renewing an alliance with Jackson, his childhood hero.

Though needled by campaign advisers to disassociate himself from political extremists if he wants a serious shot at being mayor, Sharpton is loath to cut Maddox loose. And, in the 10 years since bursting onto the political scene in 1986 with his controversial defense of self-professed rape victim Tawana Brawley and the survivors of the Howard Beach racial attack, Maddox has remained contemptuous of the people who are trying to still his acid tongue.

“I never backed up,” he says defiantly.

On the evening of November 13, the Masonic Temple, a Brooklyn “safehouse” of the United African Movement, is mousy quiet. Beads of sweat trickle down and cascade off a face murky with passion and rage. It is the face of Alton Maddox, captured in its scorn of Steven Pagones, a former assistant district attorney for Dutchess County who is suing Maddox for claiming he was one of the six white men who abducted and raped Brawley in 1987.

A special grand jury cleared Pagones of any involvement and concluded that Brawley’s story was a hoax. Pagones filed a defamation suit against Brawley that also named attorneys Maddox and Mason and Sharpton, Brawley’s adviser.

Last Wednesday, Maddox, long scheduled to give a deposition in the case, boarded a school bus in Brooklyn with about 50 self-styled “shotgun militants,” who often disrupt court proceedings they perceive to be racist. They were headed for a showdown with Pagones in Putnam County.


Ideological wars, jealousy, and betrayal on a scale not witnessed since the FBI-inspired dis­sension in the civil rights movement of the ’60s crippled a movement.


“I’ve been met with much opposition from court officials who stated that the last thing they would let in the courthouse was a group of blacks, especially those who did not know their place,” Maddox said at a packed UAM rally at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn prior to the trip.

It’s the same message Maddox says an all-white panel of the New York State Court of Appeals tried to send him in 1994, when it prohibited him from practicing law for five years, ruling that he had hampered an investigation into his actions during the Brawley case by refusing to hand over documents that might have proven Brawley’s allegation. The punishment was tacked on to an “interim suspension” that already had prevented Maddox from practicing since May 1990. A lawyer’s disciplinary committee had charged that Maddox acted unethically while advising the Brawleys not to cooperate with then-state attorney general Robert Abrams. Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton claimed that Abrams, Pagones, and other law-enforcement authorities were engaged in a racist cover-up.

Frustrated by his obstinacy, the Court of Appeals cited Maddox’s “continuing defiance of  court orders; his failure to comply with the rules governing suspended attorneys; and his unsubstantiated accusations that the courts, the attorney general and the grievance committee are victimizing him because of his race.”

“Crackers are after me!” he told his eager audience. But “the essence of freedom is privacy, the right to be able to hold your confidences to yourself. This is why, since 1990, seven years later, I have not practiced law. I don’t know where I will eat from tomorrow but tonight, here stands a man.”

On January 26, 1995, the same panel that suspended Maddox upheld 66 of 71 charges of misconduct, including fee gouging and theft against his longtime associate, C. Vernon Mason, and disbarred him.

The former candidate for Manhattan district attorney says that his persecutors “imposed what Dr. King called ‘economic capital punishment'” on him and Maddox. “The intent was to destroy my family; I’m married with three children,” Mason told the Voice in a rare interview. Once described as “a one-man Jacoby & Meyers” because his tiny law firm was handling about 400 civil rights cases, Mason filed for bankruptcy.

Sharpton raised fast mon­ey for Mason and later hired him as the warm-up man for the National Action Network’s weekly Saturday rallies in Harlem. Encouraged by Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Mason entered the ministry. Today, he is a libera­tion theologian in training at the New York Theological Seminary, and is enrolled in a chaplaincy program at New York University.

But Mason, embittered by the disbarment he feels was aided and abetted by ungrateful clients, has re­sisted the lure of New Jack evangelism. Al­though he says that the “death that they had planned did not occur,” Mason won’t be running to the scene of racially motivated police killings and making provocative speeches as he did in the past.

”When I was permitted to be a civil rights lawyer, that’s what I did. I did it at great sacrifice to my family, and in the end, when it all boiled down, those people … destroyed me. The question is, Will you be what you were before this happened to you? Hopefully not. I haven’t lost the ability to speak but hopefully I will be speaking much more deeply, much more profoundly.”

Mason and Maddox are rarely seen together these days. The tempering of Mason’s politics has led Maddox to label him a sellout. Mason, who was never much of a brawler, prefers to say, “Alton is my brother.”

During the ’80s and early ’90s, the two brothers were among America’s most visible symbols of black rage. Flanked by Sharpton, attorneys Michael Warren and Colin Moore, and the Leadership Five of the December 12th Movement — represented by Sonny Carson, Father Lawrence Lucas Elombe Brath, Coltrane Chimurenga, and Viola Plummer — Maddox and Mason agitated by any means nec­essary in the streets of New York City.


If their black detractors were to write epitaphs for Maddox and Mason, they might quote the late psychologist Amos N. Wilson’s description of African Americans who self-destruct: “black self-annihilation in service of white domination.”


Live from the Northeast, they brought a new black radicalism into America’s living rooms. Their often loud allegations of racially motivated murders, rapes, and beatings — as well as officially sanctioned discrimination in the criminal-justice system — focused attention on the state of race relations.

Their names were associated with issues that generated national headlines: the racial killings in Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, and Crown Heights, as well as Tawana Brawly’s allegation. “No justice, no peace,” became the bat­tle cry of a new civil rights movement and rede­fined the way African Americans responded to racial injustices as far south as Forsyth County, Georgia, where Coretta Scott King led marchers in 1987 to protest de facto segregation.

How powerful and united against bigotry the activists seemed. But what began as a vibrant coalition bent on “beating down” racism ended ignominiously with the emer­gence of quarrelsome cabals. Maddox and Ma­son, particularly, were accused of brokering for control of high-profile issues and hyping the price for managing black angst.

Ideological wars, jealousy, and betrayal on a scale not witnessed since the FBI-inspired dis­sension in the civil rights movement of the ’60s crippled a movement. Fearing that the annual threat of “a long, hot summer” might be realized, the New York Police Department infiltrated the coalition via its Black Desk, an undercover operation similar to the FBI’s now defunct Black Nationalist Informant Program (BLACPRO). Under the Black Desk, the activists alleged in a lawsuit, they were harassed, arrested, tried, convicted, blacklisted, and — in the case of Maddox and Mason — ultimately disgraced.

Seven years after being forced from the limelight of the civil rights movement, Alton Maddox is quietly orchestrating a comeback. He is active in the drive to liberate Mumia Abu Jamal, and is planning to play a role in Sharpton’s mayoral campaign, mobilizing the grassroots black vote, especially in Brooklyn. Ultimately, Maddox vows to reclaim his license and return to his real arena — the courtroom. His once glossy-black Afro, gray and thinned in spots, suggests a history of torments and conflicts on the front lines rather than the malicious hint that he is getting tired and old. The United African Movement, founded by Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton in 1988, has been dubbed “the CNN of the ghetto.” Under Maddox’s leadership (Mason and Sharpton resigned in the early 90s because of ideological differences), the UAM has been a lightning rod for political attacks on the Giuliani administration, the NYPD, uncooperative black elected officials, and even the Nation of Islam.

“Where was Farrakhan on my issue?” Maddox angrily asked his followers during a UAM rally in 1994, referring to his eight-year ban. “Where was Conrad Muhammad [Farrakhan’s New York representative]? Now y’all got quiet. Where these Negroes on my issue? Somewhere buckdancin’! That’s right! Somewhere buckdancin’! None of these Negroes could stand for me. Not one of’em! Let’s get that straight”

At the Masonic Temple rally, Maddox — not mentioning any names this time — blasted black leaders who assured him they were watching his back during the Brawley fiasco. “Everybody said they had my back; next time I look around was about 10 knives in my back.” But Maddox continues to “whup” his adversaries from his bully pulpit.

But his enemy list also includes the usual suspects, “the Jews.” And the crowd at the Masonic Temple is all too eager to share in the condemnation. For them, the Texaco scandal must somehow hinge on the treachery of Jews. And the fact that attorneys on both sides of the dispute are Jewish is enough to raise the specter of anti-Semitism.

“Why isn’t the Jewish community outraged?” thunders Maddox.

“That’s what I wanna know,” says a woman in the third row.

“He gon’ get them some money,” says another, referring to Jackson.

“If you have anti-Semitic remarks then why haven’t we heard from the leading members of the Jewish community?” Maddox continues. Then he launches into an attack against the same Jewish leaders who led “a relentless assault” against Khallid Abdul Muhammad. Jackson, he suggests, was enlisted by the Jews in their crusade. “Why haven’t that Jackson-Jewish alliance surfaced in Texaco?”

If their black detractors were to write epitaphs for Maddox and Mason, they might quote the late psychologist Amos N. Wilson’s description of African Americans who self-destruct: “black self-annihilation in service of white domination.” Their white critics might insist the city is better off without their brand of “racial arson.” But in the wake of the Texaco scandal, and the recent acquittals of two white police officers in the slayings of black motorists in Florida and Pennsylvania, their supporters would insist that Maddox and Mason were right all along to expose the myth that America is moving toward a “race neutral” society.

“When they looked up and saw white, blue-collared people calling us niggers, giving us the finger, throwing water-melons, and mooning old ladies, they realized that there was a problem of hardcore racism in the Northeast,” says Sharpton, who was targeted for assassination by the White Aryan Resistance, and almost died when a white man plunged a knife into his chest in Bensonhurst. “If nothing else, history will record that me, Maddox, and Mason tore the veil off of racism here. We did what the civil rights movement of the ’60s did in the South: We put America’s race problem in the face of everybody, where they couldn’t ignore it.”   ❖


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 2023

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