Louis Arthur Bedford, Jr., celebrated African American attorney, judge, and civil rights activist, son of Louis Arthur Bedford, Sr., and Callie Deborah (Rodgers) Bedford, was born in Dallas, Texas, on January 23, 1926. He and his sister, Deborah Lucille, grew up comfortably in a large house on Thomas Avenue. The house had been passed down from their maternal grandfather, Mack Matthew Rodgers.
Coming from a well-educated family, Louis and Deborah were expected to thrive in school. Both attended Booker T. Washington High School and Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University). At Prairie View, Bedford Jr. drifted in and out of class until Professor George Ruble Woolfolk took special interest in him. As a “Woolfolk boy,” Bedford studied history and scored high marks, and he eventually decided to pursue a law degree after college. He graduated from Prairie View in 1946.
As no law school in Texas accepted African American students, Bedford applied to all out-of-state programs. Two close college friends, Marvin Brotherton and Alvin Gosey, were studying in New York City and living in Brooklyn. Upon receiving an acceptance letter to Brooklyn Law School, Bedford decided to join them. During his three-year stay in New York, exposure to progressive art and theater, desegregated public spaces, and local activists awakened his interest in civil rights issues. Still, he always aspired to return to Texas. Bedford graduated from law school on June 7, 1950, and he moved back to Dallas that following August.
While working as an animal caretaker at Southwestern Medical School and studying for the Texas Bar, Bedford joined a budding community of African American attorneys in Dallas. John Lewis Turner, Sr., John Lewis Turner, Jr., William J. Durham, Crawford B. Bunkley, Fred Finch, and Romeo Williams all mentored Bedford and helped him pass the bar during the spring of 1951. In 1952 Bedford, with other African American lawyers, helped found a legal organization called the Barristers’ Club. In 1956 they renamed the organization the J. L. Turner Legal Society in honor of the late John Lewis Turner, Sr. As no African American attorneys were yet being admitted to the Dallas Bar Association, this group enabled local African American lawyers to network and collaborate on civil rights cases. A testament to the faith his mentors had in his abilities, Bedford was elected secretary of the society. He then assisted Durham, Bunkley, and even Thurgood Marshall on a series of lawsuits designed to desegregate Dallas public schools following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) U. S. Supreme Court decision.
Bedford became a well-respected attorney known for representing low-income home owners and civil rights protesters in Texas. His most high profile cases pertained to a series of student sit-ins in Marshall, Texas, in 1960. After a visiting lecture from Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) officers, students at Wiley College and Bishop College in Marshall began demonstrating at Whites-only lunch counters. More than seventy of these students were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly. Bedford and several other members of the J. L. Turner Legal Association divided up the work of representing them in court. Although all defendants were initially found guilty, Bedford and Durham were able to get many convictions reversed.
During this time, Bedford also enjoyed a fulfilling family life. He married Dallas native Velma Ruth Bates at the Maria Morgan Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association on June 7, 1958. Velma was a teacher at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School when they met. She later worked at Albert S. Johnston Elementary School. Louis and Velma had two children: Louis Arthur Bedford III was born in 1959, and Angela Renee Bedford was born in 1962. Before marrying Velma, Louis had a child out of wedlock with a secretary named Gladys Webster that he met in Brooklyn. That child, Diane, later developed a close bond with Bedford as well.
The Dallas Bar Association (DBA) refused African American applicants until December 20, 1963, when J. L. Turner Legal Society member Fred Finch became the first African American DBA attorney. In 1968 Louis Bedford submitted his application as well, becoming the fourth African American to join the organization. He immediately immersed himself in DBA activities and became a well-known and respected member of the association.
A few years before joining the DBA, Bedford became the first African American judge in Dallas County history. On July 19, 1966, Bedford took the oath of office to become an associate corporation and municipal court judge for the city of Dallas. He held the positions until resigning in 1980. Primarily hearing cases on weekends and during the evenings, Bedford was able to maintain his private law practice throughout his tenure. He oversaw cases in which most defendants had committed traffic offenses, zoning violations, or misdemeanors of that nature. Bedford’s clout as the first black judge in Dallas elicited early recognition from his peers. He also had the privilege of meeting and playing a friendly game of pool against Martin Luther King, Jr., during King’s visit to Dallas in 1966.
Despite his success as an attorney and judge, Bedford struggled in the field of electoral politics. In the 1959 Dallas city council elections, Bedford managed the campaign of his friend Crawford B. Bunkley, Jr. Despite a respectable showing, Bunkley lost this race. Shortly thereafter, Bedford served as campaign manager for his pastor Reverend H. Rhett James, who sought a place on the board of the Dallas Independent School District. James also lost the election. Bedford then ran for office himself on November 9, 1963, in a special election for a seat in the House of the Texas legislature but lost to O. Hughes Brown. Fourteen years later, after Bunkley Jr. had passed away, Bedford served on the steering committee for the campaign of his friend’s son, Crawford B. Bunkley III. They lost the campaign, this time against Lanell Cofer. In 1979 Bedford resigned from his job as municipal court judge after thirteen years of service in order to run for city council. He was initially favored to win, but the U. S. Justice Department forced the city to realign district boundaries that same year, postponing the election. After redistricting, Bedford found his home was no longer in the district where he had been campaigning and could not compete against the robust campaigns of opposing candidates in his new district.
Bedford had great influence as a mentor and advisor to younger African American attorneys and civil rights activists. Young African American law school graduates in Dallas made an effort to meet with him, and lawyers such as Joan Tarpley and Joseph Edwin Lockridge considered themselves his protégés. In 1968 Bedford offered unofficial, unpaid legal counsel to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) local chapter while they picketed OK Supermarkets for exploiting black patrons. When some demonstrators were arrested, Bedford formally represented one of them, Edward Harris, in court and procured a non-guilty conviction. When Peter Johnson from the SCLC arrived in Dallas to organize demonstrations at Safeway Stores, Bedford again served as an unofficial, unpaid adviser to civil rights protests in Dallas and subsequently represented the SCLC and Johnson in court.
In addition to serving as municipal judge, respected DBA member, and behind-the-scenes civil rights activist, Bedford was active with various charities and religious groups. He was on the board of directors of the Moorland Branch of the YMCA and an active member at Big Brothers, Elks Lodge, Boy Scouts, and numerous other organizations. He was a lifetime member of New Hope Baptist Church, the city’s oldest black church, where he met Reverend H. Rhett James, who served as president of the Dallas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1962.
Bedford received many honors and awards throughout his life. In 1967 the city of Dallas presented him with a “Trailblazer” award. Two years later, Bedford was selected to serve as grand jury commissioner for Dallas County. He made sure to select four African American jury-members in order to combat their underrepresentation on Texas juries for criminal proceedings. In 1970 Bedford was asked to serve as expert witness for the state’s House Criminal Law Study Committee, and later that year he was appointed to the board of directors for the Dallas Legal Services Project. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter appointed Bedford to the Commission for Nominating Federal Circuit Court Judges to the Fifth Circuit. That same year, Governor Dolph Briscoe endowed Bedford with the honorific commission of “Admiral in the Texas Navy.”
Bedford was also recognized many times for his distinguished career with the Dallas Bar Association and National Bar Association. In 1984 he was unanimously elected to the DBA board of directors. At the 1988 National Bar Association meeting, he was awarded the Gertrude E. Rush Award. In 1989 his portrait was included in a national traveling art exhibit, Gallery of Greats: Black Attorneys…Counselors for the Cause. In 1991 he was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame. The DBA presented him with the Justinian Award in 1991; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in 1993; and the Trial Lawyer of the Year Award in 1998. That same year the Dallas Bar Foundation created the L. A. Bedford, Jr. Scholarship to pay for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for minority students. The Dallas African American Museum honored his legacy on January 15, 2001, by launching an exhibit titled, Judge L. A. Bedford: A Life in Service.
Louis Arthur Bedford, Jr., died of cancer on April 10, 2014, in Dallas County. He was buried in Lincoln Memorial Park.