James Herndon, progressive attorney and lifelong social activist, died Sept. 17. He was 77 years old. Jim, as he was known to his friends and family, was a man of keen intellect and deep commitment to social causes affecting the lives of the African Diaspora and working people of all colors.
Born on May 14, 1925, in Troy, Ala., he was the oldest in a family of eight children. The Jim Crow mindset in Alabama, with its denial of economic opportunities and the constant threat of violence against those who dared to demand a better life, were behind Jim’s lifelong striving for a better world.
He learned printing skills at an early age to support his family and also to put himself through high school and Morehouse College, where he was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and student president of the NAACP. Later he earned his law degree from Howard University. At both institutions he honed his oratorical skills in debating societies, having been inspired by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson.
In the 1950s Jim moved to the Bay Area, where he worked as a typesetter for the San Francisco Chronicle while completing his law studies for the California Bar. After passing the Bar he joined the National Lawyers’ Guild and still retained his membership in the International Typographical Union.
It was during this time he co-founded the African American Historical and Cultural Society, then known as the Negro Historical and Cultural Society. Jim organized many Negro History Week celebrations and brought outstanding scholars to speak before the Society.
In the early ’60s he threw himself into the thick of the civil rights movement espousing the rights of Black workers and became president of the local chapter of the Negro American Labor Council led nationally by A. Philip Randolph. The campaign led by Herndon resulted in the hiring of the first African American checker in a major supermarket in the Bay View District.
Also, during this period he became the first African American to become a partner in a major S.F. law firm, Garry Dreyfus & McTernan, where he represented low-cost housing groups at Bayview-Hunter’s Point and the Mission Tenants Union. He was the lawyer for the United Farm Workers Tulare County rent strike, sit-in demonstrators on S.F. Automobile Row and the suit to eliminate de facto segregation in the S.F. School District schools.
In 1975 he founded the Paul Robeson Society, which was dedicated to the struggle for human rights and social and economic justice. The organization sponsored numerous public discussions and raised funds for various progressive causes.
James Herndon is survived by two daughters, Julia and Corinne, four grandchildren, and a large extended family.