William Booth, Judge
and Civil Rights Leader,
Dies at 84
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN,
NYTimes on the Web, December 27, 2006
William H. Booth, a former New York
City judge who challenged racial discrimination in employment, housing,
education and other fields as a civil rights leader and as chairman of the
city’s Commission on Human Rights in the late 1960s, died on Dec. 12 at his home
in Kissimmee, Fla. He was 84.
The cause was complications of a stroke suffered in 2005, said his daughter,
In a career that embraced law, politics and civil rights over nearly six
decades, Mr. Booth was New York State president of the N.A.A.C.P.; served 13
years on the benches of the Criminal and State Supreme Courts; and in the early
1990s was chairman of the city’s Board of Correction, which monitors policies
and conditions in the jail system.
But he was perhaps best known as Mayor John V. Lindsay’s man at the helm of the
Human Rights Commission from 1966 to 1969, when New York seethed with racial
tensions, protest demonstrations, battles at construction sites, angry school
board meetings and spasmodic street rioting.
It was an era of widespread and entrenched racial discrimination — in building
trades, unions, housing, major corporations, restaurant and hotel jobs, and
other areas of employment. Black and Hispanic people were vastly
underrepresented among city teachers, police officers and firefighters.
They were also shunned by many landlords, taxi drivers and retailers, and there
were ugly expressions of bias. One bank had a mural featuring “Banjo
Billy,” a wooly-headed, happy-go-lucky slave stereotype.
Mr. Booth, a black Republican lawyer who joined the N.A.A.C.P. as a teenager and
became a forceful civil rights advocate long before jumping onto Mr. Lindsay’s
mayoral bandwagon in 1965, found the Human Rights Commission to be a passive,
insular and largely ineffective city agency. It met behind closed doors
and, until shortly before Mr. Booth’s appointment, lacked subpoena power.
In short order, Mr. Booth opened commission meetings, subpoenaed data on the
racial composition of corporations, unions, and restaurant and hotel chains, and
went after the taxi industry as well as landlords who redlined members of
minority groups in the sale or rental of housing. He also established
commission field offices around the city to take complaints and begin
He found no black principals in the city’s 90 high schools, and only four among
830 other public schools. He discovered that retailers with progressive
attitudes and those openly hostile to hiring blacks had virtually the same
number of black workers, mostly in the lowest, poorest-paid jobs. He
charged that the police routinely assigned demoted officers to beats in Harlem,
and he insisted that officers who belonged to the right-wing John Birch Society
not be assigned to civil rights demonstrations.
Backed by the mayor, Mr. Booth held hearings, filed lawsuits, issued
cease-and-desist orders and threatened to cut off the city contracts of
companies that violated discrimination laws.
Mr. Booth — tall, trim, and a rapid talker with graying hair and a suit often
soaked with sweat from his whirlwind pace — also made nocturnal forays to check
on, and order the arrest of, cabbies who refused to pick up black people.
And he accompanied Mayor Lindsay into tense black communities, talking to the
people and calming crowds after racial clashes and volatile incidents, like the
sniper shooting of an 11-year-old black boy in East New York, Brooklyn, in July
His support for Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee and other advocates of black power drew sharp criticism, and a rabbi
resigned as a member of the rights commission, accusing the chairman of ignoring
bias against Jews, a charge Mr. Booth denied.
Critics generally gave Mr. Booth high marks for setting an ambitious agenda
during his tenure and for putting some punch into what had been a phlegmatic
agency, although biases against women and gay people had not yet become a major
focus of the commission, and its progress against the mountain of racial
discrimination was, at best, incremental.
In 1969, Mr. Lindsay named Mr. Booth to a Criminal Court judgeship, which he
held for seven years, and from 1976 to 1982 he was an acting justice of State
Supreme Court in Brooklyn. In 1987, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo named Mr. Booth to
a task force on bias-related violence. In 1991, Mayor David N. Dinkins
appointed him chairman of the watchdog Board of Correction, and he later clashed
with the Giuliani administration over budget cuts and conditions in city jails.
“He exemplified the best of the human spirit,” said Helen Marshall, the Queens
borough president. “His passion for justice marked his long career of
William Henry Booth was born in Queens on Aug. 13, 1922. He became
president of the Jamaica youth chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at 16, graduated from
Jamaica High School and enrolled in Queens College. After World War II
service as an Army Air Force master sergeant in Italy, he resumed his studies
and graduated from Queens in 1946. He earned a law degree and a master’s
in law from New York University.
While practicing criminal law for many years, he continued his civil rights work
with the N.A.A.C.P., rising to leadership of the state’s 61 chapters and 55,000
members. He traveled to Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere in the South to
investigate discrimination cases, and joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., Bayard Rustin and other black leaders in marches and other civil rights
Mr. Booth also joined New York demonstrations, and in 1963 he was one of 24
pickets arrested at Rochdale Village, a Queens cooperative, for blocking trucks
at a construction site to demand the hiring of black workers. The charges
of disorderly conduct were later dismissed.
Besides his daughter, of Sag Harbor, N.Y., Mr. Booth is survived by his second
wife, the former Suzanne Bishop, whom he married in 1981; two stepsons, Jeffrey
Booth of Kissimmee and Ronald Booth of New York City; a brother, Dr. Clayburn
Carter Booth, of Niagara Falls, N.Y.; two grandchildren; and one
great-grandchild. His first wife, Harriet Walker Booth, whom he married in
1946, died in 1998.