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Legendary Civil Rights and entertainment attorney Leo Branton, Jr., passed away on April 19, 2013 at Kaiser Cadillac Hospital in Los Angeles, CA, at the age of 91. The well-prepared and outspoken attorney was admired by all, feared by some and appreciated by those he represented. His scholarly charm, elegant appearance, dramatic openings, rebuttals and closing arguments made all conscious that Leo Branton Jr. had come to court to win.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on February 17, 1922 to the late Leo and Pauline (Wiley) Branton, Sr., he was the eldest of five siblings – Wiley, Sterling, Paul and Julia. He attended both elementary and high school in Pine Bluff before going on to earn his B.A. with honors from Tennessee State University in 1942. As the only person of color in his class, he obtained his J.D. in 1948 from Northwestern University Law School in Chicago after serving three honorable years in the army. Leo married his sweetheart Geraldine (Pate) Branton of Jackson, Tennessee in 1955, who preceded him in death in 2006.
Throughout his life, Attorney Leo Branton had many “firsts”
* First lawyer to successfully challenge the unconstitutional practice of denying jury duty to members of the Negro race in Riverside, CA
* First Black lawyer to represent a national labor union, representing the ILWU Fisherman’s Union
* First Black lawyer to have tried numerous Maritime Tort Cases and become an expert in the field
* First Black lawyer to form an interracial law firm west of Chicago, the Los Angeles firm of Margolis, McTernan and Branton
* First Black attorney to represent prominent entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, Inger Stevens, Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, as well as the Estate of Jimi Hendrix to name a few
* First Black attorney to become a member of the State Bar Review Board, which ruled on all disciplinary proceedings against California attorneys
* First Black lawyer to volunteer his services during the Civil Rights years by going to the south on numerous occasions to get people out of jail and represent them in court
* First attorney, Black or White to file numerous cases against the LAPD for misconduct against Black people.
As a social justice advocate, he contributed generously to social and political causes. Recently this year, he was featured as the lead attorney in the movie, “Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners.” In 1971, Angela Davis, a Black woman and an admitted member of the Communist Party, was charged in Santa Clara County for the murder of a judge and the permanent paralysis of a district attorney. As the lead attorney of four, he brought about an acquittal before an all-white jury in San Jose, California. In 1972, Attorney Branton defended members of the Black Panther Party who were charged with various felonies after a “shoot-out” with the LAPD. Through his pro bono work, all 13 defendants were eventually acquitted of all major charges.
As an ardent foe of the death penalty, Branton battled through the courts and within the public arena. He considered his efforts, and those of Charlie Garrey, to amend the death sentence of Wesley Robert Wells to life without parole after more than ten years on death row, to be his proudest achievement as an attorney. In 1972, after the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, Mr. Branton procured Wells’ complete release from prison on a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus.
His leadership, awards and advocacy have recently been recognized by the ACLU, NAACP, Langston Bar Association, CABLE, and his stories are legendary. In his home with his wife Geraldine, he hosted Mrs. Rosa Parks, John F. Kennedy, Jr, and James Foreman, National Director of SNCC among many others. He was an astute and successful businessman who helped many others in their businesses with legal advice. After almost 62 years of practice, he still kept his bar card active and practiced the last ten years pro bono.
After an exemplary high school career as a football player and sports writer, he went on to run track while serving in the United States Army. He discovered a love for the theater in college but ultimately decided his calling was to be in front of a judge and jury and actually be an attorney rather than to play one. Many knew Leo as a passionate, almost fanatic sports enthusiast of basketball, football and track. He hosted or attended many parties and games where he and friends enjoyed calling plays, applauding or using loud descriptive colorful language if the play was unfavorable. He also enjoyed the arts, architecture, interior design, gourmet cooking, and playing tennis and golf.
Survivors include children Leo “Chip” Branton, Anthony “Tony” Nicholas, Paul Nicholas, his brother Sterling Branton, his sister Julia Branton Jones, grandchildren, Thomas, Nicole, Gerald, Cathie and Paul Nicholas, numerous other nieces and nephews who fondly called him “Uncle Leo” and a host of family and friends.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the ACLU of Southern California 1313 W. 8th St. Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90017 or the Rosa Parks Institute, 535 Griswold Street, Suite 111-513, Detroit, MI 48226. He will truly be missed.For further information contact Tony Nicholas (323)