r  judicial profile
      By Daniel Cox, Photos by Peter Cutts

Going The Second Mile
Whether making history with a civil rights sit-in as a youth or arguing for additional legal protections for the poor as Maryland's Chief Judge, the always-colorful Robert Mack Bell can be counted on to go to extra lengths in pursuit of equality under the law.

Every year since 1953, Morgan State University in Baltimore has awarded one graduating senior the President’s “Second Mile Award,” which recognizes the school’s pre-eminent campus leader—someone, according to school literature, who does “more in any given task or activity than can be reasonably expected.”

In 1966, the recipient was a history major named Robert Mack Bell, for whom going the second mile was the easy part; getting healthy enough to walk the first was considerably harder. After his first semester in college, Bell was hospitalized with tuberculosis and forced to withdraw from school. He made a full recovery, though, and returned to Morgan State a year and a half later to earn his degree and make his mark on student life.

Bell felt a strong allegiance to Morgan State, whose students had toughened up the poor, skinny kid from Baltimore’s inner-city before he ever stepped foot on campus. In 1960, Bell had just been elected student-government president at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School when a group of Morgan State undergrads contacted him and told him about their plans to stage a downtown demonstration to protest segregated lunch counters. The 16-year-old Bell had read about the burgeoning civil rights movement in The Afro and was inspired by the recent sit-ins at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. He agreed to help the Morgan State students and recruited his friends to join the protest.

“It sounded like the right thing to do. I knew it was a serious effort to try to make a difference,” Bell says today. “I must tell you, though, I had enough sense not to tell my mother what I was going to do. It was high risk, ya know?”

Bell says he was not thinking about getting arrested, but that’s exactly what happened as a result of the peaceful sit-in he orchestrated at Hooper’s restaurant to protest its refusal to serve African-American patrons. He was booked, fingerprinted, charged with criminal trespass, tried as an adult, and convicted. The case soon earned national recognition, and Bell wound up with an all-star appellate defense team that included a passionate Baltimore civil rights attorney named Thurgood Marshall.

The case made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Justices overturned his conviction. Bell v. Maryland wound up becoming a landmark civil rights case that led to the end of de facto segregation in Maryland. “Nobody knew at the time what was going to happen,” Bell says. “We would’ve been happy just to get it resolved, just to vindicate our position that you cannot use the state criminal code to enforce a discriminatory practice.”

Nearly half a century later, Bell continues to play an instrumental role in decisions rendered by supreme courts—only this time from the other side of the bench. As Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court), Bell is still going the second mile to ensure that justice prevails.

As Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland, a former Bell law clerk, says, “No one would have ever thought that this young man, who was arrested in the sit-in and convicted, would get that conviction overturned, be wooed to Harvard Law on a scholarship, graduate, go to one of Baltimore’s premier law firms, and then become a judge at every level in the state. He has lived the civil rights dream.”

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Fall 2004
Vol. 3 No. 3