What is the yardstick of human worth? For some men and women it can be measured in moments big and small. But, for the late Shelby Criminal Court Judge and civil rights pioneer, Otis Higgs, the measurements of public and personal achievements spanned a lifetime. In the process, he remained among the "straightest arrows" to don both the ceremonial robes of the judicial system and the clergy.
"We make the decisions on the basis of the law and none of us are in the popularity business," said the late judge.
Former Shelby County Coroner O.C. Smith remembered, "I saw him take care of heinous crimes and he always treated everybody with equal respect."
A week after the 75-year old Higgs suddenly collapsed at his home and died, a steady flow of family, friends and admirers passed through the doors of the Mississippi Boulevard Church in Midtown hours before his "home-going" service on a gray Friday. Where do you start when eulogizing a man who experienced such a multi-faceted career, from briefly serving as the first African American Shelby County Sheriff to becoming a highly respected judge. You could reflect on his beginnings as a young lawyer who during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike vigorously represented those who were arrested for civil disobedience. You could talk about his widespread reputation of solid integrity admired in both the black and white communities.
Judicially he was at the forefront of implementing ground breaking programs in trying to restore human dignity to those in need of second chances.
"Project First Offender which was the first volunteer probation program. That dealt with re-entry. Dealt with what we're trying to deal with today on giving counseling to juveniles and adults," said City Councilman Joe Brown.
You could lament his three failed campaigns for city and county mayor. But, then be proud he chose to adhere to his own principles rather than pander for political gain.
"Judge Higgs didn't play the divide and conquer game. His thing was just leave me an opportunity to advance. Leave me an opportunity for my people to advance. We'll get there," said Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism. "It's left for the young people to make sure that his dreams and vision are fulfilled in the future. If we do that we do him a great justice for his time on this earth."
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