Hundreds show up to Borough Hall for memorial to Justice Willie Thompson
Dozens of politicians and Brooklyn judges showed up to pay their respects
The children of Justice Willie Thompson held a celebration of their father’s life with a ceremony at Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn on Thursday that was attended by local politicians, judges and other members of the legal community.
“Gail and I welcome all of you to this celebration of the life of our father, William C. Thompson,” said Bill Thompson Jr. “This isn’t a wake, this isn’t a mourning, this isn’t a down event. This is a celebration.
“People say ‘A life well lived’ — well, he really lived. He was always a positive, glass-half-full type person and always wanted people to enjoy themselves,” Thompson Jr. continued. “He would be less than thrilled if we had a sad, morose event.”
The reception prior to the ceremony attracted hundreds of people. Politicians turned out in large numbers, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York state and New York City Comptrollers Thomas DiNapoli and Scott Stringer, U.S. Reps. Yvette Clarke and Charlie Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo, Speaker of the New York City Council Corey Johnson, Councilmembers Jumaane Williams, Mathieu Eugene, Kalman Yeger, Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and more.
There were likely three dozen of Brooklyn’s judges present, plus members of their staffs in attendance, including Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix, Hon. Ellen Spodek and Hon. Sylvia Ash. Each of the three judges who spoke had to fight through tears as they recalled stories of their former mentor.
“Of all of the advice that Justice Thompson gave me, I am most grateful to him for getting me more involved with Jews and Blacks in Conversation, a group he started after the Crown Heights riots, and JALBCA, the Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert,” said a tearful Justice Spodek.
“He founded JALBCA in 1991 with other judges and lawyers after the death of his wife Hon. Sybil Hart Cooper,” Spodek continued. “The first dinners and meetings consisted of less than 50 people. The dinners grew to 150 people at Water’s Edge in Long Island to now over 500 people at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Last year’s dinner raised over $2 million.”
There were a handful of speakers at the event, each of whom shared their stories of the judge, including Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Denise Felipe-Adams, Borough President Eric Adams, James Ross and Arthur Hill, Roger Archibald and Michael Jamet. The event was closed out with speeches by Rangel, Dinkins and Thompson Jr.
All of the stories reflected upon Justice Thompson either as a family man or as a trailblazer in the Civil Rights movement.
Denise Felipe-Adams worked as the secretary for Justice Thompson later in his career and became so close to him that she eventually considered him practically a family member.
“I referred to him as my ‘judgie wudgie,’ and I was his kid,” Felipe-Adams said. “He was my boss man, my mentor, one of my best friends, my father and the best role model for how a man should treat a woman with respect. He was kind, chivalrous, cheap, but yet generous — on his own terms of course. He was fun but frank. He cursed a lot, but he was always in a great mood.
I was always fascinated by his stories about when he was in the Army, and he would help those who could not read or write.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez gave Thompson credit not only for being one of his first supporters for DA when he ran in 2017, but also for helping to get him into the DA’s Office in the first place.
“I was lucky because I got to meet Judge Thompson when I was just a teenager working for a state senator, and he was kind to me,” Gonzalez recalled. “He encouraged me to go to law school, and when I was in law school he encouraged me to apply for a position in the Brooklyn DA’s Office. He said, ‘Eric, we need people from our communities who know their way around a courtroom and can help our community.’”
Justice Thompson was the first black state senator from Brooklyn and later became the first black administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court and on the Appellate Division, Second Department bench.
“When he ran for congress against Shirley Chisholm and lost, I asked him if he was disappointed,” said Arthur Hill. “He said, ‘No,’ because he would not have become a judge otherwise. He always pointed out that it was the courts that were at the forefront of the civil rights movement and he was a part of that fight.”
Much of his motivation to get involved politically and from the bench was attributed to his time in the Army. A member of the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” Justice Thompson was a sergeant when he served in Italy during World War II and received a Purple Heart. When he was coming back from the war, though, he wasn’t allowed to ride in the train car or eat with the white soldiers, but the German prisoners of war were.
“It wasn’t until years ago when Barack Obama was running for president that he would talk about some of his stories from the war,” said Thompson Jr..
Both Thompson Jr. and Hill explained that Justice Thompson was never bitter about his time in the army, but that it did inspire him to make change.
“Justice Thompson was regional director of the NAACP,” Hill said. “He worked with Martin Luther King, with Thurgood Marshall. He had a storefront in Bed-Stuy and there was a local bank. This was in the 60s and there were no black bank tellers.
“Willie went to the bank president and said, ‘This is the heart of Bed-Stuy, I bank here and my clients bank here,’” Hill continued. “The president said, ‘I understand you completely, but these things take time.’ So Willie took his money out of the bank, he took his clients’ money out of the bank, and he told all of the people in the neighborhood to take their money out of the bank.”
Thompson Jr. told a story about the construction of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When construction initially started, there were no black workers on the site so local ministers would protest by blocking bulldozers. Justice Thompson would constantly bail them out of jail until they finally relented and hired black crew members.
“I want to close this with remarks that my dad’s former law secretary wrote to my sister Gail,” Thompson Jr. said. “The comment was — ‘Each generation is blessed with a few rare individuals who are the shining stars of their time. As a man, a judge, and a friend nobody shone brighter than William Colridge Thompson.’ That’s who our father was.”
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