Gonzaga students celebrate the 1950 National Boxing Championship – Carl Maxey is carried by students on the far right. Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.
Carl Maxey and Frank Burgess both rose from hardscrabble backgrounds to achieve national acclaim as Gonzaga University athletes and, later, in the arenas of law and life. Although they attended Gonzaga at different times, it comes as no surprise that one would help the other in a time of need.
Maxey, who was nine years older, arrived first at Gonzaga. An orphan who was taken in by Jesuits after being thrown out of the Spokane Children’s Home in 1936 when the board voted unanimously to stop harboring “colored children,” he graduated from Gonzaga High School, then enlisted in the Army and served as a medic during World War II before returning to Spokane to earn his undergraduate and law degrees from Gonzaga.
While at GU, Maxey captained the boxing team and was undefeated in the ring as a 175-pounder, winning a national collegiate individual title and leading the Bulldogs to the school’s only NCAA team championship in 1950.
He graduated from the GU School of Law in 1953 and went on to a brilliant legal career, establishing himself early on as a highly capable trial attorney and civil rights advocate who was never afraid to take on controversial clients and causes.
Burgess, who grew up in tiny Eudora, Arkansas, arrived at Gonzaga in 1958, fresh out of the U.S. Air Force. He had been spotted playing basketball on a base in Germany by an Air Force captain from Spokane who was a friend of Bulldogs basketball coach Hank Anderson.
Although Burgess was recruited by both USC and Kansas, he said he chose Gonzaga after meeting Rev. Edmund Morton, the university’s president. “He told me, ‘I have heard good things about you as a basketball player, but I want you to know we are concerned about you getting an education. I want you to know that if you come here, that is what we want to see,’” Burgess later recalled.
Over a three-year career at Gonzaga, Burgess scored a school-best 2,196 points – all the more remarkable because his record predates the game’s adoption of the three-point line. During his senior season, Burgess was the nation’s top scorer in college basketball with an average of 32.4 points per game.
A first-team All-American, he was drafted by both the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and the Hawaii Chiefs of the short-lived American Basketball League. After one season with the Chiefs, Burgess decided to return to Spokane and enroll in GU’s School of Law.
That’s when the Burgess ran into trouble and Maxey stepped in to help.
It was 1964 – a time when racial discrimination was still an everyday fact of life in Spokane and elsewhere in the United States.
Burgess, who was married with two children, had signed a one-year lease and paid a deposit on a home for his family on West Eloika Avenue on the city’s North Side. But when the property manager learned that the Burgess family was black, he refused to allow them to move in.
With Maxey as his attorney, Burgess filed a lawsuit in Spokane County Superior Court.
Maxey was already well known as a civil rights attorney after bringing successful action against a popular downtown restaurant that refused to serve black people and for winning an out-of-court settlement compelling Spokane’s School District 81 to hire its first black teacher.
At the time, Maxey had just returned to Spokane from Mississippi, where he represented black activists H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael at the behest of the National Lawyers Guild.
The case was heard by Judge Ralph Foley. Newspaper coverage noted that Burgess was vice president of his law school class and employed by Washington Water Power. He was also an assistant varsity basketball coach at Gonzaga. After graduating near the top of his law class, Burgess would go on to a distinguished legal career of his own, as a municipal prosecutor, federal magistrate and United States District Court judge.
During the well-publicized trial, Maxey – a brilliant legal strategist and fiery courtroom orator – got the property manager to admit on the witness stand that the owner of the house had said he was worried neighbors would complain about a black family.
Judge Foley ruled in favor of Burgess and awarded $250 in damages. The greater victory might have been that the popular black athlete’s lawsuit forced a mostly white community to begin to face up to its own prejudices.
Mike Schmeltzer is a longtime newspaper and magazine writer and editor and is the author of three books. He is also a Spokane real estate broker.