Charles Garry: Armenian Streetfighter in the Courtroom

Charles R. Garry, born Garabed Garabedian, was a civil rights lawyer best known for representing the Black Panther Party. Born in 1909 to Armenian parents who had escaped the Hamidian Massacres in the Ottoman Empire, he grew up in the rural town of Selma in California`s San Joaquin Valley. The discrimination he suffered for being an ethnic Armenian helped shape him into a lifelong fighter for the disenfranchised.


The following is an orbituary for Charles R. Garry published in The San Francisco Examiner, 26 Aug 1991. Written by Roger Tatarian. 



The Day Charles Garry became a Fighter


You have to know about something that happened at Selma High School in Central California back in the 1920s to understand why Charles Garry became such a passionate defender of a generation of radicals like the Black Panthers and the Chicago Seven. 


Garry, the defense lawyer for a host of anti-establishment activists like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, died few days ago at 82. No obituary that came my way told the full story of why a quiet and studious boy from a small farm town in the San Joaquin Valley of California grew up to become such a zealous and crusading defender of underdogs, misfits and unpopular causes.


Charles Garry told me the story years ago at a conference in Colonial Williamsburg. It was always seemed especially poignant that the conversation took place at so celebrated a site in U.S. history. For his was a story of racial discrimination that mocked every notion of fairness and equality that is supposed to be part of the American tradition.


It had to do with the fact that Charles Garry grew up at a time when discrimination against Armenians was rampant in the San Joaquin Valley. For the most part, other minorities have now replaced them as the targets of choice for bigots, but no one of Armenian parentage who grew up those days in the Central Valley can ever forget the humiliation that was so regularly heaped upon people whose names ended with i-a-n.


CHARLES GARRY was born Garabed Garabedian and at Selma High School his grades made him the top contender for valedictorian of his graduating class. That was the genesis of the problem. 


One day, as graduation neared, the principal of Selma High asked young Garabed to have his parents come and see him. When the parents and son assembled in his office, the principal came to the point.


“Mr. and Mrs. Garabedian.” He said, “I want you to know that anyone with Garabed’s grades would normally make the valedictorian’s speech at graduation. But of course you understand that it is impossible to have an Armenian do that.”


And so, said the principal, the honor their son deserved would have to go to someone of more acceptable ethnicity. Whether it was someone named Suzy Smith or Jerry Jones who became valedictorian, I don’t now remember, nor does it really matter. The rest of the story is the way Charles Garry told it that day in Williamsburg.


Charles Garry, California, 1920s


The principal no doubt went to his grave without the slightest notion of the deep wound he had inflicted. He was certainly not the only teacher of that era who caused similar trauma for young Armenians although, happily, there were exceptions. That act of prejudice at Selma High was to produce a lawyer so sensitive to injustice that he would willingly defend anyone he felt to be a victim of society.


There was other adversity along the way. His friend, Dr. Loretta Haroian, a Fresno psychologist, recalls that Charles Garry hoped to attend Stanford University, and that he was saving money for tuition while working for a dry cleaning establishment in San Francisco. When his stake reached about $1,500, his employer suggested it would be smart to put it into the stock market to make it grow. The crash of 1929 wiped it out.


So Charles Garry got his law degree by going to night school while working by day as a cleaner and presser. After the Chicago Seven affair, Haroian recalls, he was invited to lecture at Harvard but turned it down. She asked why. 

“Why would they want me?” she remembers him saying. “I’m not even a university graduate. I’m just a night-school lawyer.”


When Garry wrote a book about his life, he entitled it “Street Fighter in the Courtroom.” It was aptly named for a lawyer who could be as tough as any situation demanded.


Once Haroian remembers, Garry was appearing before a judge who seemed prejudiced against his client. In open court, he remarked that in the days he delivered clothes for the cleaners, he had to call at many addresses in the red light district “and I remember who owned some of those properties.”
His honor certainly got the point and his conduct abruptly became more even-handed. Rough tactics, to be sure, but when Charles Garry played that way, it was because he was determined to get someone the kind of break he never got at
Selma High.



Garry and Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton, 1968



Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen and attorney Charles Garry, Alameda County Courthouse, during trial of Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton, 1968.



Clip from The People's Advocate: The Life & Times of Charles R. Garry, 2007, by Hrag Yedalian. CLICK HERE for full film


Clip from Charles Garry: Streetfighter in the Courtroom, 1991, by Roxanne Makasdjian. CLICK HERE for full film







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I discovered your insta recently, and it lead me to your blog. I just wanted to thank you for the content you choose to create, speak upon, and bring to light. Truly inspiring and reassuring to know there are such forward-thinking Armenians out there fighting the good fight.


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