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Glanton, Luther T., Jr.
(January 18, 1910–July 4, 1991)

–attorney, judge, and civil rights activist—was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the fourth of nine children of Luther T. Glanton Sr., a teacher and custodian at a local bank, and Katherine (Leigh) Glanton, a midwife and homemaker. After graduating from Murfreesboro's segregated high school, where he earned the nickname "Tank" for his fearless, headlong rushes as a running back, Glanton went to Tennessee State University. There he earned a bachelor's degree in 1939 and won the attention and admiration of his history professor, Merle R. Epps, a Drake University graduate who successfully interceded on Glanton's behalf for admission to Drake's law school. Despite being barred from the university's dormitories and dining hall, Glanton graduated from Drake Law School in 1942. Following his graduation, Glanton joined the U.S. Army and served as an intelligence officer during World War II. After the war, he served on the staff of U.S. chief prosecutor Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg trials and remained active in the U.S. Army Reserve Corps for many years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

    Upon his return to Des Moines in 1947, Glanton joined Henry T. McKnight, Virgil Dixon, and W. Lawrence Oliver in a law practice. He also plunged into the emerging civil rights movement, joining the Des Moines branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and chairing its Veterans Affairs Committee. He was elected first vice president of the Iowa NAACP State Conference the next year and president the following year. In 1950 he and others met with Iowa Attorney General Robert L. Larson and read him a letter urging him to vigorously enforce the Iowa Civil Rights Act because "there are eating houses, restaurants, and even beer taverns in various cities in Iowa that have displayed in them glaring posters stating that they will not serve Negroes or colored persons."This effort led to a major victory over de facto segregation in Iowa four years later when, in the case of Amos v. Prom, Inc., the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of African Americans who sued the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake for refusing them admission.

    Glanton continued his crusade for justice when he became the first African American Assistant Polk County Attorney in 1951. Congressman Neal Smith later noted, "Luther was one of the toughest prosecutors ever and was not easily fooled. He once told a jury he wouldn't believe the defendant even if the defendant said he was lying."Remembering the same years, Governor Robert Ray observed, "You thundered and roared and shook the timbers, but unlike many whom we have seen over the years in a courtroom, you also made sure you were blessed with substance."Glanton's zeal and substance were probably the main factors in Governor Herschel Loveless 's decision to appoint him to fill a vacancy on the Des Moines Municipal Court in 1958, to which he won election the following year. His success as a municipal judge led to his appointment as an associate district judge in 1973 and as Iowa's first African American district judge by Governor Ray in 1976, a position he held until his retirement in 1985. At that time, A. Arthur Davis, senior partner in one of Iowa's most prestigious law firms, lobbyist, and later mayor of Des Moines, noted, "You were, of course, Iowa's first black judge.... If there had been a faltering step it could have done (unfairly) a great deal of harm. There were no faltering steps, and the door is now open wider than it has been before."

    Luther T. Glanton Jr. opened many doors with his persistence, passion, professionalism, and social skills. Chief among these was his compassion. A colleague was amazed "that someone of your success and stature in the community has retained his compassion for the personal problems and well-being of others."Glanton was instrumental in establishing Iowa's first chapter of Omega Psi Phi, his college fraternity, and was elected its first Basileus (president) in 1947. Not long afterward, he and others formed the Olympian Club, a men's social club that promoted athletic excellence among young African American men. Perhaps his most significant achievement in social community building came in 1984, when he played a leading role in founding Gamma Eta, the Iowa chapter of Sigma Pi Phi (also known as the Boulé), the prestigious, professional, national men's social fraternity. But he probably would have said that his greatest social success was his winning and maintaining the 50-year love of his life, Willie (Stevenson) Glanton, to whom he would have credited his success. Glanton was described by his longtime law partner Virgil Dixon as a "proud, generous, compassionate father [of his adopted son, Luther T. Glanton III], husband, public servant, loving brother, lifelong friend and dedicated practitioner."In short, as Des Moines Register social reporter Julie Gammack wrote, Luther T. Glanton Jr. was "a symbol of what can be, what should be, and what will be."
Sources Glanton's papers are not accessible to the public. There is some correspondence between him and Gwendolyn Fowler in Fowler's papers in the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries. An obituary appeared in the Des Moines Register (7/6/1991); a memorial editorial followed (7/9/1991). See also Iowa Bystander (1/11/1979).
Contributor: Hal S. Chase