Twenty-five years ago Gene Locke faced a different set of legal challenges than those he will inherit when he replaces Benjamin Hall III as Houston city attorney later this month. On April 6, 1969, Locke was busy trying to figure out how he and two friends, Deloyd Parker and Dwight Allen, could safely surrender to authorities on conspiracy to riot charges without subjecting themselves to bodily harm.
"We knew the reputation of the Houston Police Department at that time, and didn't feel like we just wanted to be picked up on the street," Locke recalls, "because we felt like there was a great possibility for brutality if we were just picked up."
The 21-year-old East Texas native, whose maturity and long emotional fuse in incendiary times made him the anchor for the University of Houston's Afro-Americans for Black Liberation, huddled with friends and two lawyers and came up with a solution that was well ahead of the times: call Marvin Zindler!
Zindler, who in those days had yet to find his true media calling as KTRK/Channel 13's consumer gadfly, was a Harris County sheriff's deputy, albeit one with a knack for making hot-dog, on-camera arrests for the benefit of himself and TV newsfolk. He had already established a reputation for racial evenhandedness, making him a law enforcement anomaly among the city's white officers in 1969.
Locke, who has fathered five children, put on a few pounds and earned a law degree from South Texas College of Law in the ensuing quarter-century, laughs as he remembers his booking by the future over-the-top television personality.
"We chose him to surrender to, and our lawyers worked a deal and we called him and asked him to process us in," Locke says. "He probably doesn't even know that we chose him."
Zindler's booking technique was "very professional," the former Dwight Allen, who is now known as Omawale Lithuli, remembers. "He basically responded to us with 'yes sir' and 'no sir' and treated us like gentlemen, as opposed to like criminals. He was just exquisite in his treatment of us."
Parker says each of the threesome arrested that day had distinct characteristics that are still apparent.
"I was more or less the community base, like I'm in the 'hood," says Parker, who has headed the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward since 1970. "Live, sleep, eat in the 'hood. I'm on the streets. Omawale was the most intellectual of the group. Brilliant. Gene had excellent leadership skills. He was like the old man of the movement. Gene was ... more mature in his thinking than some of us."
Locke, Parker and Lithuli and 11 other UH students were charged with rioting and destruction of state property under a new law, the Texas Riot Act of 1967, which made participants in a disturbance potentially guilty of any crime that happened during the incident, whether or not they were directly involved.
The misdemeanor charges against Locke and his friends stemmed from a protest march that culminated in what was tagged, in the peculiar language of the time, as the "Cougar Den Mini-Riot." The only real casualty was Locke himself, who was beaten by several white students in a morning incident that triggered an afternoon protest march to the UH student center by supporters of Afro-Americans for Black Liberation. The rowdy group smashed about $2,000 worth of glass and cafeteria tables before it dispersed.
Initially, no one was charged in the incidents. Then the school administration came under pressure for supposed leniency toward radicals, and a perusal of newspapers from April 1969 reveals a wacky obsession by authorities with the threat of campus militants. State Senator Henry Grover called for an investigation of the UH bureaucracy for sheltering radicals. Texas Southern University president Granville Sawyer shook Rotarians out of their post-luncheon slumber with dire warnings that local campuses might become invasion points for foreign powers. President Nixon told reporters that campus unrest threatened American civilization. During the month federal authorities charged the Chicago Seven with rioting at the Democratic convention of the previous summer. That hot and bothered April, "conspiracy to riot" was a major worry in the republic.
"In 1969 we had negotiated an agreement with the University of Houston and its president, Phillip Hoffman, that would end the student protests around the black student demands," Locke says of the long-running effort by AABL to secure better conditions for UH's then-minuscule population of black students. "We had been negotiating and meeting for several weeks and had come to understand that everything was worked out. It was our understanding there would be no reprisals as a result of anything that might have happened. And we got wind that there were actually warrants out for our arrests. We felt we had really been betrayed by the university."
Locke was less measured in his explanation back then, telling reporters, "The villain, Mr. Hoffman, has turned us over to the arch-villain, [District Attorney] Carol Vance."
Charges against the other students were eventually dropped, but Vance chose to take Locke and Lithuli to court on the misdemeanor riot charges in 1970. The trial afforded the two activists an opportunity to air political issues before the six-person jury.
"We made a big political production out of the trial," says Locke. "It lasted almost two weeks. Every day we had hundreds of people coming down to support us."
The jury split along racial lines in its deliberations, with whites holding out for conviction, blacks voting for acquittal. Not only did Locke and Lithuli win a mistrial and the eventual dismissal of the charges, but Locke also made a lifelong friend. "Of the two blacks on the jury, one was a welfare mother from Fifth Ward, and the other was the foreperson, a very young minister named Robert Staggers," says Locke. "He pastors Northside Antioch Baptist Church. Years later, the woman I married [Aubrey, Locke's second wife] was active in his church. And he ended up marrying us."
With his appointment by Mayor Bob Lanier as city attorney, Locke will oversee the city's defense of lawsuits against the police department he once feared. Yet Locke is amused by recent media descriptions of himself as an activist-turned-establishment figure, and indeed, his resume from 1970 on is not so easy to summarize.
Locke already was enrolled at TSU's law school during his trial. "I got very caught up in the dynamics of the civil rights movement and the urgency of the moment," he says. But he dropped out of law school after a semester, and his odyssey in the early seventies would take him where few high-powered lawyers have ever gone, as he worked first in a steel mill and later in a refinery.
"It was that process that was really my seasoning," Locke remembers. "It was working every day with common people, dealing with everyday concerns and problems that people had, that began to make the whole thing come together for me."
He was almost killed during an industrial accident at the Armco plant on Federal Road. A steel cable snapped and barely missed Locke's head, hitting his foot and breaking several toes. He was later laid off from the now-closed steel plant but hired on at the Shell refinery, where he "worked in the machine shop and on the labor crew -- just did whatever I was told to."
During that period Locke temporarily adopted a Swahili name, Dowalu, but it didn't stick. "I used that for a year, a year and a half," he says. "Never an official name."
It was while working at Shell that Locke, a divorced parent with two kids to support, decided to go back to law school. "I worked a rotating shift in the oil refinery and went to South Texas at night .... Many times I felt real uncomfortable, because I had to go from the oil refinery directly to the classroom, without the benefit of stopping home to shower. I was sitting in the classroom with guys who had been clerking downtown, in their Botany 500 suits."
"Coming out of that experience, it made me confident I could compete in any situation. I always have fears, but I'll never be intimidated."
Locke may have been a blue-collar worker, but he had personal and political connections dating to his UH days with up-and-coming powers like future U.S. representative Mickey Leland and future county commissioner El Franco Lee.
Lee introduced Locke to labor lawyer Eric Nelson, and a legal partnership was born that continues today at the law firm of Nelson and Locke. Locke would take time out to run Leland's Washington office in 1983-84. Since then he has practiced both civil and criminal law, with an emphasis on personal injury cases, while serving on the Houston Community College board.
Lithuli, who these days works in violence reduction programs in the city, predicts Locke will encounter some contradictions in his new job as the city's chief lawyer.
"He's working for a high-powered mayor who has some establishment interests that often run counter to some of the interests of the community," Lithuli says. "I think that what Gene brings to the table is his integrity that's unimpeachable -- he is not going to play two sides against the middle, and he can honestly communicate to the community the rationale, the thinking behind [the mayor's positions]."
Lithuli expects Lanier to learn a few things from his lawyer, as well. "I think he will be very persuasive in helping Mr. Lanier understand the positions of a constituency that sometimes is forgotten in the equation."
Deloyd Parker is philosophical about his friend's new opportunity. "Life is pretty much 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it," he says. "I think Gene is extremely intelligent and he knows how to utilize what happens to him, for him to be able to advance the community as well as his own goals and objectives. Where he is now puts him in a position to be able to do more to correct some of the wrongs that might have existed in the system."
Unlike some politicians who have risen to prominence and disavowed their sixties experiences, Locke seems at ease with his past.
"I think the way I look at the world remains fairly close to where it used to be. I still have a compassion for people, a commitment to fairness and a kind of real defiance against abuse and oppression in any form," says Locke. "I think those things are in place and those things are the fundamentals. And what has happened is I've tried to take those fundamentals and build on them."
One salient irony is that Locke will now work for Lanier, who was one of Mayor Louie Welch's prominent backers during the era when Welch's police chief, Herman Short, was the bane of the black community. Locke prefers to talk about the Lanier of today.
"The only Lanier I know was the man who has been the mayor. He has clearly a commitment to diversity, clearly an appreciation for the need to change relationships with people. There is a human side to him that is genuine and real, and without putting a label on it, it's one I'm certainly comfortable with. His business dealings I don't know a lot about."
Perhaps the surest sign that Gene Locke is not very different from the man whose commitment landed him at the Houston police station in 1969 is the fact that he remains close to the two men who surrendered with him that day.
"Absolutely," replies Lithuli when asked if he and Locke have kept in touch. "We were cut from the same cloth. We had a genuine affinity and affection for each other and that has persisted until today. As soon as he came under consideration, he contacted me and asked for my thinking."
"We support each other," adds Parker. "He lives in Third Ward, right around the corner. He's a SHAPE supporter, financially and otherwise. When we need him to help children with his law practice, he helps."
And there's no backbiting from Locke's comrades when it comes to his new position. The sixties term "sellout" -- which these days is more or less an archaic epithet you rarely hear -- certainly doesn't apply to Locke, Parker says.
"Overall, they couldn't have made a better selection," Parker avers. "Gene has the knowledge, the experience, the compassion, and more importantly, the uncompromising character that keeps him from selling out.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.