Philip L. Burton was born in Topeka, Kansas on October 15, 1915. He graduated from Kansas University in 1939 and from Washburn College of Law (Kansas) in 1948. He served as an officer in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. While in Topeka, Kansas and while still a law student, he brought suit against the City of Topeka for discrimination in city-owned movie theatres and a suit to desegregate the city’s public swimming pools. Because of his fair complexion, he was not easily identified as African American, but throughout his lifetime passionately devoted his legal talents to gaining access to public facilities for all African Americans.
Moving to Seattle in 1949, he became a member of the Washington State Bar and was married to Octavia “Toby” Walker, who survives him with their daughter, Linda, and their son, Kenneth, a Seattle lawyer who practiced with his father from 1982 to 1990 when his father retired.
Philip L. Burton in his early practice maintained law offices in the Central Area of Seattle with Charles M. Stokes (later Judge), another Washburn Law School graduate, they being two of only five African American lawyers practicing in the city at that time. A highly regarded and successful attorney, he had a general practice, but specialized in civil rights and equal opportunity employment law.
Of his many successful cases, Philip L. Burton was most proud of lawsuits he initiated in 1962, as an attorney representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, against the Seattle Public Schools for desegregation of its schools to achieve racial parity. Another lawsuit was filed in 1966 on behalf of thirty African American students, which was followed by a successful school boycott. Still another lawsuit was filed in 1977, which ultimately resulted in a consent decree in the United States District Court in 1979 under which the School Board (which had instituted a “voluntary” desegregation plan in 1963) adopted a city-wide mandatory desegregation plan–the first and largest metropolitan school district in the nation to abolish public school segregation without a direct order from the federal courts.
With intense opposition from a segment of the larger community to mandatory desegregation, a local well-organized group, Citizens Against Mandatory Busing, obtained an order from the King County Superior Court in 1971 that “invalidated” the action by the School Board and delayed implementation of the desegregation plan by one year.
The voices of reason (and the power of the federal courts) nevertheless prevailed. Also supporting Philip L. Burton in his desegregation effort were a cross-section of the religious community, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Seattle Urban League, and persons of good will from all racial groups in Seattle.
An extremely modest man, Philip L. Burton was the recipient of many honors and awards. He was a dedicated advocate of minorities, the poor, and anyone, regardless of race, gender, religion or creed, who was being denied the rights and privileges our society promises to all people. His colleagues, friends and family describe him as caring and compassionate, soft-spoken and low-key, dignified and courageous. In his quiet, but persistent way he was a guiding force who set an example for the rest of us who believed, as he did, in the good will of citizens of all backgrounds and in the ultimate fairness of our democratic systems.