Why you should care
Because she knew how to court controversy and celebrity.
Facing a paternity suit, 67-year-old Elijah Muhammad tried to blame the pregnancies on someone else. But Gladys Towles Root, the white female attorney who filed the paternity suit against him on behalf of his accusers, knew the Nation of Islam leader was simply passing the buck.
“He tried to induce an assistant to assume responsibility for the paternity,” so he could retain “his spiritual image on a high plane in the eyes of his followers,” Root told reporters at the time. The rub? Muhammad, who was married, had allegedly fathered children with two of his secretaries. On July 4, 1964, news broke of the lawsuit, which aimed to have Muhammad listed as the children’s biological father, compelling him to pay child support.
She used the doctrine of legal insanity and aggressive cross-examination to get her clients acquittals or reduced sentences.
Malcolm X, who had long suspected the rumors of extramarital affairs by his fellow Nation leader were true, hired Root based on her winning reputation. Then things went haywire. Soon after filing the suit, Root was indicted for subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice in another high-profile case, the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. The charges were eventually dismissed, but in the interim, she had to set the paternity suit aside. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the two women’s claims were recognized as valid.
A 1929 graduate from the University of Southern California’s Law School, Root held a juris doctor degree when women had few, if any, economic rights: They struggled to even get credit cards without their husbands’ names, and working women often were ridiculed, so much so that females couldn’t even join the Los Angeles Bar Association at the time.
Gender discrimination prevented Root from finding full-time employment. So she decided instead to launch her own practice, and given the sexism of the era, she couldn’t be too picky about which clients she accepted. Her first was Louis Osuna, a Filipino immigrant charged with murdering a wife he’d been trying to divorce. Root managed to negotiate a plea bargain, getting him sentenced to just 10 months for manslaughter. In prison, Osuna put the word out about his great attorney, and soon Root had 15 new clients.
Root lived by her own rules and dressed however she liked — which was colorfully enough to be compared to a Las Vegas showgirl. One day she appeared in court wearing a bright pink dress, matching hat and shoes, with her hair dyed the same radiant color. The next day, she was covered in purple and feathers.
She took on cases other attorneys often dodged — from molestation and sexual battery to rape — believing that everyone had the right to competent legal representation. And defend she did, taking on more than 1,500 cases a year — the average lawyer then covered 300 to 400 cases annually — while also managing to raise two children.
Root tackled many miscegenation (so-called interbreeding) cases. Under California state law back then, a white man could not legally marry a Black female, or vice versa, but more often than not, Gladys proved victorious. By poking holes in the law’s theories about race, Root helped foster an environment for the law to later be repealed. “She used the doctrine of legal insanity and aggressive cross-examination to get her clients acquittals or reduced sentences and successfully challenged California’s miscegenation law as it applied to Filipinos,” says Richard F. McFarlane, author of California Legal History. In 1948, the California Supreme Court ruled that antimiscegenation laws violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
In 1968, by successfully defending Robert Clayton Buick, the bullfighting bank robber charged with holding up 22 federally insured savings-and-loan associations, Root became the Johnnie Cochran of her day. Instead of receiving the expected 75-year sentence, Buick was sentenced to 25 years and was granted parole after just five. Buick had whispered rumors of being connected to everyone, from the CIA and Lee Harvey Oswald to the Mafia, which made for a sensational case.
Busy defending 75 clients a month, Gladys still found time to marry twice. Her first husband, Frank Avery Root, eventually became overwhelmed by Root’s personality. He disliked her wild wardrobe and all the publicity she generated; they divorced after 11 years. Root’s second husband, in contrast, proved nearly as dramatic as his wife: John C. Geiger was often seen around Los Angeles with a colorful parrot on his shoulder.
In 1982, the 52-year career of America’s famous female criminal defense attorney ended. Flamboyant and successful to the very end, Root was defending two brothers accused of sex crimes when, dressed in scintillating gold, she dropped dead in court at age 77.