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Pioneering Augusta black jurist Ruffin passes away

AP
Jan. 5, 2005 Judge John H. Ruffin Jr. (right), of Augusta, gets a hug from fellow Augusta Judge Richard Slaby after taking the oath to become the first black chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals. He had been on the court since 1994.
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John "Jack" Ruffin Jr., retired Georgia Court of Appeals chief judge, died Friday night in Atlanta, Richmond County legislative delegation chairman Quincy Murphy confirmed this morning.

Ruffin -- the first black member of the Augusta Bar Association  -- was also the first black Augusta Superior Court judge and the first black Court of Appeals chief judge.

His name will be featured on the new Richmond County judicial center under construction on Walton Way, city commissioners decided last year.

Associates said they became alarmed Friday when he did not show up to teach a class at Morehouse College. He was found still alive at his Atlanta residence but later died at the hospital.

The cause of death has not been made public. His family said they were not ready to make a statement.

The funeral service is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6, at Tabernacle Baptist Church, Murphy said.

"He's a very courageous man," said Murphy. "Where he saw injustices, he tried to correct them. Where he saw opportunity to bridge the gap in the community, he worked to make that happen. He was a man of compassion and conviction. And, for me, he was a man that I could go to for consultation and spiritual advice. And I will miss him."

Members of Augusta's legal community were quick to respond this morning.

Growing up, Ruffin was a larger-than-life figure in the life of Richmond County State Court Judge David D. Watkins. He and Watkins' father were among the very few black attorneys in Augusta in the 1960s and '70s. In their generation before intergration, it was a very small community. "You couldn't avoid those giants," Watkins said.

He always felt blessed that Ruffin took an interest in him and kindly served as a mentor, someone whom Watkins wrote letters to and tried out new ideas. "He taught the duty to give back to the community," Watkins said.

Hearing the stories of Ruffin's battle for equality for black members of the community was thrilling and scary.

"You couldn't help but wonder if you would have been strong enough to go through the same. You saw the character that had been forged," but you were also glad those like Ruffin built that path first, Watkins said.

Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. said this morning that Ruffin was a brave and honorable man, with a wonderfully dry sense of honor.

As a lawyer he was passionate in representing his clients but always very ethically and professional, Blanchard said. As a judge -- first as a Superior Court judge and then as a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals -- Ruffins was fair and balanced.

"He was such a great guy," Blanchard said.

"I remember as a young lawyer and being kind of brash  -- Jack was the first lawyer to intimidate me," said attorney Charles Lyons.

It was a result of Ruffin's dry, maybe wicked, sense of humor.

"He said something to me and now I can't even remember what it was, but it set me back. I didn't know if he was kidding or serious. I thought he was kidding, but he didn't smile."

After Lyons got to know him, he realized Ruffin was often kidding -- a very funny man. But he was also incredibly strong and smart.

"Thing about it. Jack was a profile of courage --that was Jack Ruffin,"  he said.

To practice the kind of law that he did in Augusta and the surrounding counties in the 1960s and '70s -- "That took a lot of courage."

"A lot of people hated to see him go on the bench -- not in a negative way but because we lost him as a lawyer," Lyons said.

He was a tough opponent and he was always on top of the game, Lyons said. "Jack might beat you down bad, but he was always nice about it."

 A Burke County native, Ruffin started his law career as an Augusta civil rights attorney, filing the lawsuits that desegregated school systems in Richmond and Burke counties. He was an Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge until 1994, when Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the appeals court. He served as the court's chief judge in 2005 and 2006.

Ruffin, 75, was born in Waynesboro, Ga., in 1934. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a housewife who later worked at Camp Gordon, a laundry and as a schoolteacher. He was educated in Burke County's segregated schools, then went on to Morehouse College, with his mother hoping he'd return home to teach.

He later told a Chronicle interviewer that he was anxious to enter the fight for racial equality, so he earned a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Three years after he was admitted to the Georgia Bar, he was the plaintiff's counsel in the 1964 class-action suit Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education, which brought about court-ordered desegregation and supervision of district schools. That same year, he petitioned a federal judge to desegregate the Augusta Golf Course.

During the antiwar riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was inside with a group of mavericks challenging the credentials of Georgia's mostly white delegates, who were chosen by the state's party leadership. The credentials committee ruled in their favor, and Ruffin became part of the newly shaped delegation.

The convention nominated Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon.

As an attorney,  Ruffin also defended former Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre in his 1984 federal prosecution on extortion charges. He represented former Watergate security guard Frank Wills in a 1983 shoplifting case.

Of all he did in his 46-year career, Ruffin told The Chronicle his civil rights work was probably the most satisfying.

"I think the progress that we made in race relations has to be at the top, even though we still have a long way to go," he said.

He said he never imagined, though, that Augusta schools would still be under the desegregation order in 2008.

"Of course, I thought I'd be a civil rights attorney for 10 years, then go on to make some serious money, but that obviously didn't happen," he said.

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