Judge Mary Buckner was appointed to the Muscogee County Recorder’s Court in 1984, becoming the first African American and woman to sit on the bench.
She served as judge pro tem until 1991, when the Columbus Council appointed her as a full-time judge, a position she still holds today.
Buckner’s bar affiliations include memberships in the State Bar of Georgia, American Bar Association, National Bar Association, Columbus Bar Association, and Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys.
Buckner sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about her background, family and life as a judge.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: What was it like growing up here in Columbus as a child?
A: When I grew up, Columbus was very rural. I came up during a time when you had a city government and a county government. ... Basically we lived down in the county, out in what at that time was the Dawson Drive area. Now it’s Northstar, and basically out there all the families were known. My family was huge, so there were a lot of Buckners who lived in the same area. It was like we grew up as a clan in a village — grandparents, first cousins, uncles and aunts. So that was all good, because we saw each other all the time. We were close in age, and we all went to school together. We are each other’s best friends, and that’s really good.
At that point, too, when I was younger, I didn’t know too much about downtown, or the city, because we didn’t come to town that much. ... On weekends, that’s when we came to town, or for special events. But most of the time we were in our area, where we grew up.
Q: Did your parents do any farming?
A: No farming, but they were workers. My mother went to work at Fort Benning as a civil servant after my youngest sister was able to go to kindergarten. My daddy was working at Columbus Tractor and Machinery Company. They were working real hard to support all nine of us. Great sacrifices. ... (My father) became a pastor later, in the ’70s.
Q: So what was it like being a preacher’s kid?
A: It was good. I mean, I didn’t really think anything about it, you know? I really didn’t. Maybe other people did ... only to the extent that we were brought up to do the right thing — you know, with morals and those kinds of things.
Q: What was it like attending segregated schools?
A: It was good. ... I guess I can use the word good. I don’t know if that’s politically good to say. ... But look at all the teachers who knew you. They knew your parents. If you were not performing to the extent that they knew you could, they would report it to your parents. The principals knew you. They kind of kept their hands on you. To that extent, I think it was really good. And our friendships were good. Most of my friends today were my friends from elementary school all the way up to senior high school. And even though I went off to college, they ... remain my friends today. ... You felt like a family when I grew up in that kind of environment.
Now, I learned (later) that we didn’t have all the books we should have had. ... Our math books were — I learned this after I went off to college — not upgraded to the extent that I learned when I went off to college, because some of the students there were taught some math higher than the math that I had learned. But I didn’t know that at the time when I was in high school. I think that growing up in a segregated school system had its benefits, and I miss it sometimes when I think about what’s going on in the school system today. The parental involvement was on both sides. It was with the parents and the teachers. Everybody was not good. All the kids, we were mischievous and all of that. But at least it was reported and the concern kind of kept some of the people that were inclined to do bad things from doing it, you know?
Q: Some people in the black community are beginning to rethink integration and wonder if it was actually a bad thing for a lot of children?
A: I don’t think they’re trying to rethink it, but I think they feel (frustrated), to some extent, especially when you see these young black males. I’m going to use them as an example because I see a lot of that over at the courthouse. When you see them committing the kinds of crimes, nonsensical crimes, I think sometimes about principals like we had, like Mr. Charleston, who would call them in the office all the time and give them strong discipline. Now, mostly what happens is that kids are brought into the office and then (they get out-of-school suspension). ... I don’t think that’s good for a kid, because they do something wrong, they get 10 days out. Make them stay in school. Give them a book. Get with the parents, so that if they’re inclined to do anything, you can kind of turn them around. I think to that extent, some of the people may be rethinking that hands-on, that caring.
I don’t mean to say that the teachers of today in the integrated system don’t care, because they go and (spend) money for supplies and do all kinds of things for students. They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t care. But I do know what happened when we were in that segregated system.
A: At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a lawyer?
A: ... I’m also a part of the civil rights time, when we were not allowed to go in to these businesses downtown and prevented from going to the public library, and those kinds of things. People did a lot of demonstrating at the time, boycotting, which is all good, because there was some positive results from that kind of action. But then, you know, you had people like Lester Maddox, who was the governor of this state, who would refer to people exercising their constitutional rights as “agitators” and “people not participating in the process.” It dawned on me, in some kind of way, we were outside of the system, even though we were exercising our constitutional right. So I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: I’m going to become a lawyer and then whatever I wanted to do, I know that I will be in the system.” I decided that when I was in the 12th grade, so that whatever I decided to do, then I’d be working in the system. And you couldn’t say, “You’re an outside agitator,” as they were saying to us at that time.
Q: What was Carver High School like when you were going there?
A: It was like family. We had a strong administration, teachers. We had a strong principal, who taught us that we could accomplish anything, because Mr. Charleston used to tell us, and I think that motto is still at the school: “Through these doors walk the finest students.” You have to just digest that. It had to be a part of you. We didn’t feel like there was anything we couldn’t do, even though we may have done some things that weren’t nice. We were given positive encouragement. ... That makes you feel strong. Plus, I got that reinforcement at home, too.
Q: You were one of 24 students chosen to integrate Mercer University. How did that come about?
A: I really don’t know how 24 came up. You didn’t know it until after you got there, but we were all freshman. If you want my take on it, Mercer had just gotten some new dorms and they were suites. We all had black suitemates. I think it had to be an even number to accommodate that living arrangement, really.
... I would never trade my experience at Mercer. I would just say that, not withstanding all the kinds of things that you endure when you’re there, what I learned mostly is that everybody don’t love you like family. ... You’re living in a dorm with people and they don’t like you, don’t speak to you, don’t know anything about you. Don’t know if you go to church, anything. Don’t like you because of the color of your skin. I had to come to grips with that, I mean, really.
I had to learn that kind of hatred, which was really ugly. That made me strong because I always felt it was their loss for not getting to know me. I hadn’t done anything. I knew the kind of person I was. I knew how I was brought up. So that made me very strong and helped me develop myself as a woman, as a citizen, too. I had no hatred in my heart for anybody. I just looked and I felt sorry for them, really.
Q: Give me an example of the mistreatment that you experienced.
A: ... It was more like prejudice. ... The president of the women’s association in a meeting was warning us about locking the doors. Mercer was basically next door to a public housing project at the time. They were telling us to make sure the doors are locked because the doors had to be locked at a certain time. Then, that’s when she (said) the “n-word” might come in. ... Now, don’t misunderstand me, not all (were like that), because I came out having some pretty good friends. I really did. ... It’s not all of them. It was just the bulk of them.
Q: So you went to Emory for a year, and then went to Mercer to finish law school, right?
A: Yeah, that was a money thing. I went on scholarship that first year at Emory, at no cost because that was a part of that program. Then I transferred at the end of my first year to go back to Mercer because of the money and the tuition. ... I was the only black female in my class. I was at a school where there was never more than three females at a time. ... I was one of three black students ... in my law school class.
In law school, we sit at these long (tables), right next to one another. You go sit and this guy would get up. So, you know, I start laughing now, because I’ve got four years under my belt. I’m secure and I know what I want to be. You can’t deter me with all that ignorance anymore. I remember one night, I was at the school, I think I was at the library. One of the professors thought I was a maid. He was telling me something about, “Where are you going? Clean this.” I didn’t correct him. Like I told you, I was not deterred.
It was different between Emory and Mercer. It was night and day. Emory was more of a diverse law school. It had students from all over, had females, a lot of males, students from, like, New York or just all over. At Mercer you had one kind of student. They were all from Southern white schools, and they were all, especially the males, dressed alike. You know, we had to wear suits and we had to dress up when we went to law school. They all wore the same kind of shoe, same kind of belt, the tie, you know what I mean? But you get used to it, really.
Q: Your sister, Naomi, is on the school board. Both of you have obviously been very successful. Do you think it’s about the way your parents brought you up?
A: That’s absolutely the truth there, especially for us girls. ... I’m glad I went to (college). I probably would have gone anyway. But it was not my choice. I already knew I was going to college. (My father) told us that every day. ... That was like our priority. ... It was funny, but this is what he said: “By the time you get that first degree, that’s going to be a playground degree. You’re going to have to do more in order to be successful in this world.” ... He also was a minister and a pastor, but he didn’t ever want us to be in a situation, should we marry and should our marriage fail, that we could not take care of ourselves.
Q: Were your parents college educated?
A No. Eighth grade.
Q: So what was it like when you came back to Columbus after law school?
A: I met Sanford Bishop during my first year at Emory. Mr. B. was a third-year law student when I was a first-year law student. So that’s where we met. Mr. Bishop, also, he was a Legal Defense Fund recipient. A lot of his legal education was covered through the Legal Defense Fund. ... It’s kind of like helping them set up their law practice because they wanted the recipients to do a lot of civil rights litigation. ... Bishop chose this area. He was not from here. ... He’s from Mobile, Ala., and went to Morehouse. ... When I was graduating, he just asked me to come in. Of course, he had a partner. His name was Richard Hudlin. Then Richard left and went back to St. Louis. When Richard left, Bishop and I became partners.
... Now, practicing law in the ’70s here, that was an experience as well. When Mr. B. came, (there was) Judge Albert Thompson. ... He was the only black attorney when Sanford and Richard came to Columbus. Then, of course, he subsequently became a judge. ... He had endured a lot of the racism and prejudice by himself while he was here. Then we came, and Sanford came with a big Afro. I had an Afro when I first got out of law school, too. Mine was a little smaller. (We went) inside and outside of these courtrooms, where the bailiffs were not used to black attorneys going into certain doors to enter the courtroom, and the people were not used to you going in.
Q: So tell me now how you became a judge?
That’s an appointed position at the council. There was a vacancy and someone ... asked me if I wanted to, and I said yes. It was a matter of the council approving. Now, that was historic, which I didn’t even realize until I heard it on the radio that I was the first black female and black judge to be appointed to the Recorder’s Court of Columbus since Reconstruction.
Now that scared me in the car. I mean, I knew I could do a good job and I knew once you study you can do your job well. But you know, to have that designation, I just shuddered. Then I went right over there. I didn’t get a big head or anything. I just hadn’t thought about it, but it was an honor. I appreciate council for appointing me then and I appreciate council for my re-appointments over the years. I always felt I could do the job.
Of course, as judges, we can’t say all our rulings are correct, but I do try to do the right thing and be unbiased and follow the law. That’s what I try to do: be respectful to the people that come before me. That’s very important because all kinds of people come to Recorder’s Court and we’re the first impression a lot of times for people going to court. I think it’s important that they receive dignity and a right to be heard, and I try to do that for people who appear before me. It’s an honor.
Q: You mentioned earlier that as a judge you’ve seen a lot of young black males coming to court for some very serious crimes. Is that something that has changed over the years?
A: I kind of think so. Columbus has grown so much, and the population has grown. Early on, I did not see as many young offenders as I see now. ... (Before, some police officers), they’d probably take them home to the parents and tell them what they had done. ... There might be some instances or some kinds of situations where they still may do that, exercising that discretion. But a lot of kinds of crimes that young people are committing now, you can’t do that. You have to bring them down. They are so serious.
... It seems like too many young people have guns and weapons and they choose to use that as an alternative to solving all kinds of circumstances. Pulling a gun, shooting in a house, shooting friends. They don’t understand that what they do now ... is going to affect you for the rest of your life.
Q: Why do you think that the problem exists? Why are so many young black males getting into trouble?
A: I believe that if I could just sit down here and tell you that, I’d be really rich. This problem is really a great problem. We can sit down and speculate about kids being brought up by single moms, parents are not doing their jobs, schools not doing what they’re supposed to do, churches that dropped the ball. We could come up with a lot of kinds of scenarios that may be a contributing factor to why these young people might be committing these crimes. But sometimes kids are brought up in the best of homes and then they commit crimes for, in my mind, no reason at all. So I don’t know the answer to it. I really do wish I did know the answer to it, so that it could kind of stop, so we can bring a halt to it, because this is very, very serious. It’s really serious. To me it’s out of control. It’s really out of control.
Q: Do you believe there are inequities in our criminal justice system?
A: Oh, yeah. That’s obvious in terms of sentencing, and also probably at the arrest stage, the profiling. Yes, it is. I know one of the things I really have learned to respect is that I know that police officers have a really hard job. I really do know that, in terms of patrolling and stopping people and driving, stopping vehicles. ... But I always ask what the probable cause is in my court. ... I just want to know.
... It’s not just Columbus, and it’s not all police. ... I do respect police. I brought up my son to respect them. It’s just there. It’s ingrained in our criminal justice system. ... Another thing, too ... let’s suppose you have no women, no African Americans, or Latinos, or any other kind of minority person serving as judges in the country, then what’s missing is points of view. Yes, we are all women, we are all males, but when I hear evidence or a defendant speak, I may, because of my background or who I am, have a different point of view than let’s say a white male who’s brought up in a different environment then I am.
... One thing I do appreciate is diversity on a bench in this country. Of course, we should have a lot more in Columbus, because of the size of Columbus, in our courts. But we don’t. I know we’re going to get there, but that’s why that’s important.
Q: I understand you’re a foster parent. Tell me about that experience.
A: A lot of my friends used to work for the Department of Family and Children Services. I’m not married, had no children, so I was under a lot of pressure from them to become a foster parent. (Laughs). “Oh Mary, come on and be a foster parent. You can be a foster parent.” I listened to them, but I never did make a decision for a long time. I even went to the foster parent training and still did not make my decision. Then finally I went and talked to my mom, talked to my dad, because you’ve got to have a back-up when you work. So I finally decided to do it. And it is really rewarding.
Q: And you adopted one of those children, correct?
A: ... Jontell’s 23 this year. I adopted him. He came to me as a foster kid and he’s been with me and my family. To see it, you wouldn’t know it. I’m about the only mom he ever really knew. ... He loved my parents, and my sisters, all his aunties. They all loved him. He’s got first cousins.
... Same thing with Jackie. She was never officially adopted, but she’s a part of our family. I got Jackie when she was like a young teenager. ... All my family loves her — my brothers and sisters. ... She just recently got married. She’s about to retire from the military now, too.
Q: What’s Jontell doing?
A: He works at a battery place in LaGrange. He’s quite disciplined and, I might as well tell you, I am a grandmother.
Q: Good for you.
A: She’s seven months. I’m so happy. I just think about her, you know, bouncing and all that. Then when I call on the phone and she knows my voice — you know, so yeah. So I’m a grandmother, too.
Q: Sounds like you’ve had a really full life. A good life.
A: I have. I just thank God all the time. I’ve had problems and I’ve had ups and downs. I still will have ups and downs. But on a whole, I’ve been truly blessed.
Judge Mary Buckner
Job: Muscogee County Record’s Court Judge and attorney in private practice.
Previous Job: A partner in the law firm of Bishop & Buckner, practicing with Sanford Bishop from 1978 to 1992, before he was elected to Congress.
Education: Carver High School graduate, 1966; bachelor’s in history and political science, Mercer University, 1970; juris doctorate degree, Mercer University Walter F. George School Law, 1973. Also participated in a pre-law program at Emory University Law School the summer before law school.
Family: One of nine children to the Rev. and Mrs. Otis Buckner, both now deceased; son, Jontell; daughter, Jackie Anderson, and a 7-month-old granddaughter.