Celebrating the legacy of Judge Jack Tanner

Aaron Pointer

Don’t you love that feeling when you do something and you just know before, during and after that it was the right thing to do? I had that feeling last month as we dedicated the newly renamed Judge Jack Tanner Park on Ruston Way. Judge Tanner was a great man — and a great Tacoman — and this recognition was long overdue.

Before I list his accomplishments, let’s look at how we got here. It started with the park district’s effort to name the new park developed as part of the remediation and transformation of the former ASARCO slag heap that opens July 6. There was a lot of interest in naming that new park in a way that honors Frank Herbert, the author of the sci-fi book “Dune,” because of the impact the ASARCO pollution had on him as well as the significance of transforming a Superfund site into a beautiful park.

During that naming process, we realized that there are no parks named after African-Americans in Tacoma or even in Pierce County. That just did not sit right with me or lots of other people.

As the community got behind the name of Dune Peninsula for the new park, another name came up that also got a lot of support. And that is Judge Jack Tanner.

Tanner was born and raised in Tacoma, and graduated from Stadium High School in 1938. When he enlisted in the US Army in 1943, he was placed in an all-black unit with a white officer in command. After leaving the Army, he graduated from the College of Puget Sound and then earned a law degree at the University of Washington. He paid his way through law school by working as a longshoreman.

He was active in the NAACP, and served as an officer of the local chapter and a member of the national board in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1968, he was a founding member of the Loren Miller Bar Association, which is the Washington affiliate of the largest organization of African-American attorneys in the United States.

He marched for housing equality in Kennewick in the early 1960s. He advised President John F. Kennedy on the drafting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He strongly supported Native American fishing rights. He was the first African-American to run for governor of Washington.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter nominated Tanner to the federal bench. He was the first African-American to serve as a federal District Court judge in the Pacific Northwest. He took that role seriously. In fact, he was eligible for retirement in the 1980s, but he chose to keep working when he learned there were no African-American judges available to replace him at that time. Judge Tanner believed it was important for law students, his judicial peers, and even defendants, to see him as a role model for minorities.

As a federal judge, he was determined to do the right thing, even in the face of controversy. In 1980, he declared that conditions in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla violated the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In 1983, he made headlines for what is known as the “comparable worth” ruling, which was one of the first court decisions to mandate equal pay for women. Although that ruling was overturned on appeal, it led to reforms in our state, and it gave a bigger platform to issues of gender equity in the workplace.

In recognition of his many accomplishments, Tacoma’s legal community formed its own African-American bar association, the Jack E. Tanner Bar Association.

All of which brings us back to present day. The effort to rename Marine Park as Judge Jack Tanner Park could not have succeeded without support from various individuals and organizations. They include: the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Tacoma Historical Society, the Tacoma Pierce County Bar Association, the Loren Miller Bar Association, the University of Puget Sound, the Black Collective, and the Washington State Historical Society.

Here are some of the things people said about Judge Tanner in their letters of support to the Park Board, the Tacoma Landmarks and Preservation Commission, and the Tacoma City Council:

On June 1, about 100 people gathered on a cool morning to celebrate the renaming of Marine Park into Judge Jack Tanner Park.

John Bell, a longtime attorney for the Puyallup Tribe, shared his appreciation for Jack Tanner’s work to support treaty fishing rights. Lionel Greaves IV, who is Judge Tanner’s great-grandson and an assistant attorney general for Washington, spoke beautifully about the influence Judge Tanner had on his family.

We all agreed that Judge Tanner was a brave leader and icon of the community who was ahead of his time in many ways.

I have been to lots of ribbon cuttings and dedications. This one was different. It was a great honor to stand with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and formally dedicate Judge Jack Tanner Park. By naming a community park for Judge Tanner, we honor his achievements in the fight for equality and civil rights, and we highlight the contributions made by the African-American community to Tacoma’s history.

It just felt like the right thing to do.

Aaron Pointer has served on the Metro Parks Board of Commissioners since 2001. He currently serves as president of the Parks Board.


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