Bob Warren used to walk into court without a tie, often rankling the judges that Warren appeared before. But Lewis Pitts, Warren’s law partner, was delighted.
“Nice pants and coat … but no neck tie,” Pitts, who practiced law with Warren in South Carolina in the 1970s and now lives in Greensboro, said. “He argued, successful a few times, that he did not want to have clients or a jury to think he was part of the corporate class of lawyers who wore the expensive suits and ties. He wanted to be associated with working people of all races, and most of them did not trust the neck tie wearers.
“For Bob this was not a gimmick but a sincere way of answering the still profound moral question we all face: which side are you on?”
“I saw that people who wear ties make the rules,” Warren said via email last week. “People who do not wear ties work under those rules.”
For his work on others’ behalf, Presbyterian College in October awarded Warren, a Montreat resident, its 2017 Thomas Aurelius Stallworth ’55 Alumni award. The award is given to alumni who exhibit “Christian leadership, strong, bold character, integrity, moral courage and values,” according to a press release announcing the award. Warren graduated from the college in 1967.
The award is the latest of several Warren has been presented in his five decade-long legal career representing the underdog. Mostly retired now and writing short stories at home, Warren has been given the ACLU of South Carolina 1979 Civil Libertarian Award, the Rev. Wilson Lee Award (in 1992), the Dr. Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award (in Asheville in 1995), the Asheville-Buncombe United Public Workers Local Union Award (in 1999) and an award from the North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence.
Warren grew up in South Carolina’s Low Country during segregation. As a youngster, he worked in his father’s drug store in Allendale. His father, he said, greeted everyone, black or white, with a smile and friendly greeting.
“He had grown up in the segregated South, but he knew how to make people feel at ease,” said Warren, who was interviewed by email because Parkinson’s disease makes him hard to understand. His father, he said, “also knew the limits and rules when dealing with African Americans.” He called male black patrons “Professor” instead of “Mr.” By giving black customers water in paper cups for free, he came close to violating social norms of the time.
“When I gave a black kid water in a glass, my father thought he had to do something … to send a message to his white customers,” Warren said. His father asked Warren which glass the boy had drunk out of. Warren told him it was one of the three unwashed glasses in the sink. With his white clerks watching, his father broke all of the glasses and threw them away.
“That episode in my life has stayed with me,” Warren said. The unfairness that black South Carolinians had to deal with propelled him to get his law degree and set up a civil rights practice in Allendale in 1973. One of his early clients was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which asked him to look into the death of Wallace Youmans, an 18-year-old black man shot and killed in 1970 in Allendale County (five people charged years later were acquitted at trial).
Warren represented the NAACP in parade permits, voter redistricting and individual rights. He has represented farmers in their dealings with banks and agri-chemical companies. “I represented working people, people exploited by insurance companies, finance companies and other corporate conglomerates, as well as indigent criminal defendants who were treated unfairly,” he said. He practiced law in Allendale until 1980.
“Because of his strong moral courage and values, he took on many civil rights cases, many times for no pay,” Presbyterian College said in the press release. “His commitment to justice and equality for all sometimes ruffled the feathers of the local political establishment.”
“My former law partner, Lewis Pitts, and I tried to make the Constitution apply to all citizens, especially to those who never experienced equal rights under the law,” Warren said. “And when we called out judges and pointed out the inequities in the system, the system quite naturally responded. But we escaped from South Carolina with our law licenses intact.”
“We were focused on racism and discrimination,” said Pitts, who still gets together with Warren from time to time. And the legal community was getting in their way.
Sometime during the 1970s, the South Carolina trial lawyers association decided to commission portraits of two state and federal judges. “They could not have picked two less qualified candidates,” Pitts said. “We (he and Warren) went to that conference of trial lawyers and held our own press conference and explained examples that we had faced dealing with these two judges. They were, in our opinion, unfit to be judges, much less honored to have their portraits raised.
“One of the many things I learned from Bob was having the courage to speak truth to power. He was a person with bulldog tenacity – he still is – in fighting for what is right, and for the underdog.”
Warren moved to Black Mountain in 1980 and after some time serving as administrator at Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, he opened a law practice in Black Mountain in 1982. In February 1983, a cross was burned in the Statesville yard of the Rev. Wilson Lee, whose picture glass window had been blown out by a shotgun. Warren and Pitts acted as Lee’s legal counsel until the case was taken up by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“Another case in Cherokee didn’t involve the Klan, but concerned a white campground lessee who took action against his Cherokee neighbors (that) weren’t neighborly,” Warren said. “Cherokees charged that he had prevented them, unless you reserved a campsite, from swimming in a swimming hole used by members of the tribe as long as they could remember. Also, the campground owner told a Cherokee youth he could not fish in the river near the swimming hole, as this part of the river was reserved for campers, even though the lease did not provide for exclusive use of the river.
“The campground owner was eventually banished from the Cherokee Qualla Boundary, but he sued four neighbors for interference with his business when they warned would-be campers of the racist actions of the campground owner. I represented these defendants for years before the owner’s complaint was finally dismissed by the Tribal Court.”
Over the years, Warren worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes in eastern North Carolina. He worked with Western North Carolinians Ending Institutional Bigotry. He represented “poor people and injured workers for very little or no money at all,” according to the college’s press release.
“In 2001, the federal government instituted a complicated program to compensate employees and former employees of the Department of Energy who had cancer as a result of radiation exposure at work,” the press release states. “Warren began representing eligible workers as soon as he could the following year. After 10 years of work (despite his Parkinson’s disease), he helped to persuade the government to declare a Special Exposure Cohort for the Savannah River Site, which made hundreds of workers eligible for benefits they had previously been denied.”
And he did it for little pay, according to a 2015 profile of him in The State newspaper.
“I was always committed to helping poor people get through the system, and I still believe in the mission of legal services for poor people,” Warren said. “If the Constitution doesn’t apply to one person, then all the people are in danger of losing their rights.
“Unless citizens participate at every level of society and take action to make the government work for all the people, then the government will only work for those who lobby and pay money to elect representatives to vote when money is involved and on the line.”