MEMPHIS, TN — Civil rights warrior, astute political strategist, and progressive attorney, Russell B. Sugarmon departed this life at age 89 on February 18, 2019, after a long illness.
Born on May 11, 1929 to the late Russell and Lessye Hank Sugarmon, he became a civil rights attorney, co-founder of Memphis’ first integrated law firm, and Juvenile Court referee, before his appointment to the General Sessions Court. His was a life of service to the Memphis community, during which he fought for racial equality, human rights, and political empowerment.
After completing two years in the U. S. Army, he married Miriam DeCosta in 1955, and they had four children: Tarik, Elena, Erika, and Monique Sugarmon.
Judge Russell B. Sugarmon, Jr., helped reverse the tide of racism in Tennessee during his legal and political career. A native of Memphis, Sugarmon was born on May 11, 1929, and completed his primary education in his hometown.
Following a year at Morehouse University, Sugarmon earned his B.A. degree from Rutgers University in 1950; he then received his J.D. degree from Harvard Law School in 1953. For the next two years, Sugarmon served in the Army, receiving a letter of commendation for his tour of duty in Japan. Upon returning to the United States, Sugarmon did graduate work in finance at Boston University before entering private practice in Memphis in 1956. Sugarmon ran for public works commissioner in 1959 in a racially charged race. As the first African American to make a serious bid for a major city office in Memphis, Sugermon lost when whites united in opposition to his candidacy; his experience, however, helped pave the way for future black leaders in Memphis.
Sugarmon later became a founding partner in the Memphis law firm of Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis and Caldwell. In 1964, Sugarmon was elected to the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, and two years later ran successfully for the State Senate. In 1966, he became the second African American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Tennessee State Legislature.
From 1976 to 1987, he served as a referee in Memphis Juvenile Court system; Sugarmon stepped down from that post in May 1987 when he was appointed to the General Sessions bench. Sugarmon was elected to the seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1990 and 1998; by that time, he was a well-respected elder statesman in Memphis, loved by people of all races and political affiliations. Two years later, President Kennedy named him Special Ambassador to the Independence Ceremony of Trinidad-Tobago.
For 11 years, he served as a referee at Memphis Juvenile Court, but stepped down when he was appointed and, later, elected to be General Sessions Judge for Division Four, a position that he held for 20 years, until his retirement in 2006. Characterized as “a common man who had a brilliant mind” and a “giant who walked humbly among us,” Judge Sugarmon was a kind and caring gentleman, who never met a stranger and greeted everyone with a smile.
Sugarmon was an active member of several civic and community groups, including the NAACP and ACLU; he was honored by both organizations for his pioneering efforts and contributions to Memphis.
He leaves to cherish his memory four children with his first wife, Miriam, and two stepchildren with his wife, Regina. He also has leaves 8 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren, 3 nephews, and many friends to cherish his memory.