Pioneering Alaska lawyer dies at 94

M. Ashley Dickerson served as the state's first black attorney

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A burial service was arranged Wednesday at the Wasilla homestead of Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the state's first black lawyer, who died this week after a short illness. She was 94 years old.

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Dickerson, who was still practicing at age 91, had a reputation as a fierce advocate for the poor and underprivileged and argued many cases involving racial and gender discrimination.

"I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, 'Rex, you see those mountains out there?' He said, 'Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson,"' said attorney Rex Butler, whom Dickerson persuaded to come to Anchorage.

Dickerson opened her law practice in Anchorage in 1959 with longtime partner Johnny Gibbons.

She often took on clients who lacked the means to pay, said Leroy Barker, historian for the Alaska State Bar Association, who practiced law with Dickerson in the 1960s.

In 1984, she told the Anchorage Daily News, "In my life, I didn't have but two things to do. Those were to stay black and to die. I'm just not afraid to fight somebody big."

At age 71, she was still working 12-hour days at her law office in Anchorage.

"Whenever there's somebody being mistreated, if they want me, I'll help them," she told the Daily News.

In 1995, she was awarded the Margaret Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor also given to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor, who has since retired.

Dickerson wrote a book about her life, "Delayed Justice for Sale," in 1998.

Sons John and Chris planned a private Quaker graveside service Wednesday on her land. A memorial will be held at a later date.

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