Carl Maxey: Boxer, Lawyer, Civil Rights Champion

A look back at the career of the legal giant, 25 years after his death

Earlier this year, Gonzaga University’s Center for Civil and Human Rights put out a call to local artists for submissions that honored Carl Maxey and his dedication to social justice. The review committee, in consultation with Maxey’s family, chose this work of art, entitled “Unforgettable.” The artwork was created by award-winning printmaking artist and Gonzaga Assistant Professor Reinaldo Gil Zambrano. All photos by Zack Berlat, Gonzaga University


Carl Maxey, a champion for justice, a “type A Ghandi”11 as he was called in a New York Times article, stood for those whose voices went unheard. Maxey was one of the most influential figures in the Inland Northwest, and one of the most well-known lawyers and civil rights advocates in the country when he died in 1997. 

Maxey was born to a single mother in Tacoma in 1924. He was adopted by a couple from Spokane immediately following his birth, but landed in the Spokane Children’s Home after his adoptive father disappeared and his mother died. When Maxey was 12, the Children’s Home stopped caring for African American children and he was placed in the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center.

After a few months, he was rescued from the Juvenile Detention Center by a Jesuit priest named Father Cornelius E. Byrne. Byrne offered him a place to live at the Sacred Heart Mission in De Smet, Idaho. Almost all of the students were from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and it was the first time Maxey had attended school in a place where white students were not the majority. 

At this new home, Maxey began to thrive. He was studious, hardworking, and a very talented athlete. Father Byrne taught him the discipline of boxing. He arranged boxing matches for his students at logging and mining camps around the neighboring areas. Maxey won his first match at the age of 13; his opponent was 33. When Maxey left the mission school at age 15, Father Byrne arranged a full-ride scholarship for him to attend Gonzaga High School, Spokane’s Catholic prep school, which was associated with Gonzaga University. Maxey quickly became the star of the high school’s baseball, basketball, and football teams.

After graduating from Gonzaga High School in 1942, Maxey enlisted in the Army. He wanted to help in any way that he could, but still faced discrimination and poor treatment because of the color of his skin. From that point forward, Maxey dedicated himself to fighting for equality and civil rights for all. 

Segregation was all the more prominent when he returned home to Spokane. He was denied service and told he couldn’t frequent certain establishments. This only fueled his fire to put an end to segregation and to fight for equality. Maxey attended the University of Oregon for a short time and then returned to Spokane in 1948 to attend Gonzaga University School of Law on a boxing scholarship. There, he gained the moniker, “King Carl,” as he went undefeated in 32 bouts. Maxey went on to beat Michigan State’s Chuck Spieser by one point in the finals of the NCAA championships. Maxey was dubbed the nation’s collegiate light-heavyweight champion, which helped Gonzaga to win a share of the national team championship.22 When Maxey and the rest of the boxers arrived home by plane the next day, students and alumni were waiting on the tarmac at Spokane’s Geiger Field to celebrate.

The bronze bust of Carl Maxey on display at Gonzaga University was commissioned by Nancy and John Clute and completed by Dana Kelley of Spokane in 2001.

After becoming the first Black person from Spokane to pass the Washington bar exam,33 Maxey opened his own law firm in Spokane in 1951. One of his first cases involved Eugene Breckenridge, a Black man who had applied to be a teacher with the Spokane School District. Despite his seemingly exceptional credentials—four years’ service in World War II as an Army sergeant, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biology; a master’s degree in education from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University), and an award for being the college’s outstanding student teacher—Breckenridge was deemed not qualified to teach seventh grade math and science at Havermale Junior High. Maxey passionately defended Breckenridge. After much argument and presentation of Breckenridge’s case and even a threat to involve the NAACP, Breckenridge was hired for the role. According to Maxey, the superintendent came to “recognize the morality” of his argument. 

Throughout his career, Maxey continued to take on cases that would challenge the status quo and the norms of discrimination and segregation. In a series of lawsuits, Maxey helped end racial restrictions at many of Spokane’s all-white social clubs. In another prominent case, known as the “Haircut Uproar,” a Gonzaga University student from Liberia was refused service at a local barbershop. Dozens of students, many of them white, picketed the barbershop in support of their classmate. Maxey filed a complaint with the State Board of Discrimination and argued the case before the board’s tribunal, which ultimately ruled against the barber. In yet another case, Maxey successfully defended a Gonzaga University student body president who was arrested for yelling, “Warmonger!” at vice-president Spiro Agnew during an event.

Maxey continued to grow as an advocate for civil rights, and eventually got into politics himself. In the 1960s and 1970s, he ran unsuccessfully for several local offices. In 1968, he became the state spokesman for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. While serving in that position, he attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. By this time, Maxey was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In 1970, Maxey ran in a primary race against Washington’s longtime Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Maxey was a lifelong Democrat, but he disagreed with Jackson’s support of the war. Maxey hoped to get 10 percent of the vote against Jackson. He got 13 percent.

Although Maxey didn’t win, the attention he received during his senate campaign was likely a factor in landing him one of the most contentious cases of his legal career—the trial of the Seattle Seven. The Seattle Seven, members of an anti-Vietnam-War group called the Seattle Liberation Front, organized a demonstration outside the Federal Courthouse in Seattle on Feb. 17, 1970, to protest the sentencing of another group of activists called the Chicago Seven. Police intervened and the demonstration turned violent. The courthouse was vandalized with rocks and paint.44

The seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot and destroy public property. Maxey become one of four defense lawyers on the case.55 The trial, which began in Tacoma in late 1970, was marked by frequent disruptions by the defendants. Eventually, U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt declared a mistrial and issued contempt citations to the defendants. When the defendants returned to court on their contempt charges, even more chaos ensued. The contempt charges were eventually dropped in 1972, but most of the defendants ended up serving jail time. 

Other highlights in Maxey’s illustrious career include running for vice president on an independent ticket with Eugene McCarthy, serving as a Democratic Party Convention delegate, and co-founding the Loren Miller Bar Association. Maxey left a legacy of perseverance and a demand for equality, and will forever be known as a voice for change for the Inland Northwest and Washington as a whole. Maxey died in 1997 at the age of 73. His spirit lives on through his two children, Bill and Bevan Maxey, and their grandchildren. 

The artwork, “Unforgettable” by Reinaldo Gil Zambrano, is on display at the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Gonzaga University School of Law.


In His Name: Aiding Social Justice

Gonzaga University School of Law established the Carl Maxey Social Justice Scholarship Program in January 2021. The scholarship provides financial assistance to students from historically underserved communities who show a commitment to social justice. Last year, three first-year law students became the inaugural scholars in this program; all three received full tuition scholarships to allow them to pursue careers in social justice and to serve the public good. More information about the program can be found here:

About the author
About the author

Morgan Maxey graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 and from Gonzaga University School of Law in 2017. Since his graduation, he has been named the Eastern Washington representative for the Loren Miller Bar Association and continues to further his interest in promoting diversity through his work with the Spokane County Bar Association and the Spokane County Diversity Section. Maxey specializes in criminal defense work and family law representation, while taking on some civil rights work as well. He is Carl Maxey’s grandson, the fourth oldest of six.