The esteem in which Charles Roach was held by his legal peers was evident when the U.S.-based National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) switched their 44th annual convention at the last moment from Memphis to Toronto to facilitate and pay tribute to their ailing colleague who had attended every conference.
Roach passed away two days before the convention started last Thursday and several of the delegates attended a private funeral last Saturday. Later in the evening, Roach’s life was celebrated at a gala banquet at the Intercontinental Toronto Centre.
The noted civil rights attorney, community leader and activist succumbed to a malignant brain tumour. His body was cremated. A public memorial will take place at a date to be announced.
New York-based attorney Lennox Hinds, who met Roach 40 years ago at a NCBL convention at Howard University, said his friend and colleague was a legal giant, an indefatigable fighter and an intractable defender of the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed.
“I was moved and impressed by this brother’s warmth and sincerity,” said Hinds who teaches in the criminal justice program at Rutgers University. “He was a people’s lawyer who fought against racism, sexism and homophobia. In any legal battle, you knew that he would be on the side of the have-nots and the exploited. He was not afraid to take on the establishment and in so doing he incurred many enemies.”
A year after their first meeting, Roach invited Hinds to Toronto to speak at a rally in support of teenage Black hockey player Paul Smithers who was facing manslaughter charges in the death of a White player who had racially abused him on the ice.
Hinds referred to the criminal trial as “a legalized lynching” and returned to New York, leaving Roach to face an enraged legal establishment which held him responsible for Hinds’ controversial comment because he was the organizer.
As he always did, Roach stood his ground, staunchly defending Hinds.
Last July, Hinds and Maryland Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm Joseph attended a community tribute for Roach at the University of Toronto Medical Science Building.
“As I stand before you today, I am happy that I was afforded the opportunity to tell Charles while he was alive how I felt about him a few weeks ago,” added Hinds, a former African National Congress (ANC) counsel. “I could see how it moved him to tears. All too often, we are not able to tell the people we love how we feel about them and we are left to speak at memorials and at funerals. Charles was not only my friend for the past 40 years. He was my comrade and yes, he was my hero.”
Chicago human rights attorney Stan Willis recalled his last meeting with Roach at the 2011 NCBL convention in Maryland.
“He led us through song and some of his readings on the Saturday night as we were preparing to leave town early the next morning,” recalled Willis. “Before we wrapped up, Charlie reminded us there was an Occupy Wall St. demonstration that Sunday morning…He took several people with him to it before they departed.
“He was a valued friend who also understood that art could be a weapon and I will always remember him and be inspired by his life.”
Former law partner Mike Smith said Roach was an outstanding lawyer and advocate.
“When I came out of law school in 1974, I was lucky to meet a man who had a lot of experience under his belt and I was proud to be part of some of the struggles he was involved in,” said Smith. “He had charisma and courage and he lived by his principles.”
Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine also paid tribute to Roach.
“We walked with you, we learnt from you, we shared with you and we enjoyed our time with you,” she said. “Rest in peace.”
Local filmmaker Alison Duke travelled with Roach to Arusha, Tanzania in 1999 when he appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as lead defence counsel for a Hutu journalist subjected to human rights abuse.
She produced a 22-minute film – The Renaissance Man – showing his interaction with kids in Arusha. The film was screened at the gala.
“The title of this film speaks to the complex, rich, joyous, wonderful, creative, smart, intelligent, courageous person that dad was,” said daughter Kike Roach, who with her sisters Dawn and Sunset, stepmother June Thorne-Roach and other family members attended the event. “What Alison was able to capture was another aspect of him. Anytime he went somewhere, he always tried to communicate with the people. He wasn’t just there in Tanzania as a lawyer, but he also connected with the children of Arusha. This film is a nice memory and gift to all of us to remember him by.”
In addition to being a lawyer and activist, Roach was a published poet, painter and social club operator who worked as a musician and bandleader in the city in the late 1950 and early 1960s.
“He was a very wonderful man,” said friend and lawyer, Peter Rosenthal. “He was remarkably positive and optimistic even during his dying days and his most difficult struggles.”
Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson called on the NCBL to establish an appropriate memorial to commemorate his distinguished service.
“He stood for what he believed in and he was a strong lover of people,” noted the attorney with degrees from Princeton, Rutgers and Southern New Hampshire universities. “He was someone who was consistent.”
A Canadian resident for 57 years, Roach died without becoming a Canadian citizen because of his refusal to pledge allegiance to the Queen which is a requirement for all citizenship candidates over the age of 14.
The Caribana and Black Action Defence Committee co-founder will be posthumously honoured with an Urban Alliance on Race Relations Humanitarian Award on October 24 at St. Lawrence Hall.