For three decades, most of it as a civil rights lawyer, Fields has influenced the way Memphians hold elections, treat jail inmates, educate children, allocate property taxes, build public housing, sell cars, promote firemen, and run day-care centers.
Memphians like to talk about bridging the gap between the black and white communities. Ladies and gents, behold the human bridge.
He's a 53-year-old, California-born-and-bred, Stanford-educated sole practitioner who lives alone (unless you count the pet rooster) in the historic Wright Carriage House in Victorian Village. His father was a winemaker. He's partial to jeans, cowboy boots, and loud open-necked shirts. He sports a gray beard and a ponytail. He can speed-dial most of the important politicians, judges, civil rights figures, and reporters in Memphis. His fingerprints, not to mention his quotes, both attributed and unattributed, are all over scores of front-page stories. He was one of the first white men in Memphis to be legally married to a black woman. The marriage didn't take. Neither did the next three.
In other words, about as typically Memphis as your average purple snow-capped mountain.
Shown a partial list of his cases over the years, Fields studies it for a moment, nods, and then puts it down with a shrug: "I know a lot of people in Memphis."
Fields came here in 1969 to work for the Teacher Corps at Georgia Avenue Elementary, an inner-city school. It was the year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Not a good time, for sure, but a time of opportunity just the same, with liberals, blacks, Jews, and women coming to the fore and making their marks (Fields was raised Lutheran).
"I never thought I'd be doing this when I graduated from college," he says.
Two events were formative.
He married a black woman at St. Thomas Catholic Church, something taboo and even illegal in parts of the Old South. The marriage, he says, "gave me a different perspective than a lot of people."
In the fall of 1969, to press their demands for representation on the all-white school board, black leaders organized "Black Mondays" demonstrations. More than 60,000 students and 600 teachers skipped school. The only white teacher was Richard Fields. The only principal was Willie Herenton.
It proved to be a good career move for both of them. Herenton rose through the ranks to become superintendent, with the support of the Memphis NAACP. Fields left teaching for law school at the University of Tennessee, then returned to Memphis in 1976 to work in an integrated civil rights law firm with the late Marvin Ratner and Russell Sugarmon. He immediately went to work on high-profile school desegregation cases, one of which involved Shelby County and is still very much alive today.
Jimmy Carter was elected president that year. One of the things he did was appoint more black judges than his predecessors had. Blacks were still in the minority in Memphis, but by 1980 they had won some judgeships, school board seats, and the superintendent's job. It was a good time and place for a young civil rights lawyer to start his career.
Through thick and thin, Fields hitched his wagon to Herenton's star. They did not always agree. Fields was the unbending idealist. Herenton was the embattled pragmatist. One thing they split on was busing.
"When I was superintendent, I did not want segregated schools, but we reached a point where in my opinion busing had run its course," recalls Herenton. "My position was, 'Gentlemen, let's call a truce. Busing has not worked.' Richard was adamant that I was trying to return the public schools to segregation."
Fields stood by him as friend and personal attorney when Herenton weathered a scandal involving a relationship with a former teacher, Mahnaz Bahrmand. When Herenton ran for mayor in 1991, Fields and Dr. Harry Moore, a liberal preacher, were the only two prominent whites to publicly support him. Herenton's 142-vote margin and 49 percent of the vote would have thrown him into a runoff but for a landmark federal court lawsuit pressed by Fields, the NAACP, and others and resolved that year.
"Dr. Herenton," he says, "has been absolutely a godsend to Memphis."
And to Richard Fields. Backing Willie Herenton in 1991 was a little like buying stock in AOL at $10 a share. Herenton has been mayor for 10 years and counting and shows no signs of giving up the job. Fields has been there to hold his coat. He has been, at various times, the mayor's personal lawyer, political adviser, schools liason, and spin-master on issues ranging from the 1999 mayoral election to the controversial firing of a police lieutenant to the proposed NBA arena.
"I give him advice when he seeks it," says Fields.
Fields' law practice, meanwhile, has ranged far and wide.
"My theory of law," he says, "is do as many cases as you can that involve the broadest impact."
What sets him apart from other busy lawyers is not only the nature of his cases but also his media connections, particularly with The Commercial Appeal and this newspaper. It would be nearly impossible to have been a beat reporter in Memphis over the past 25 years without crossing paths with Fields in the state or federal courts or at the city or county school board. Approachable and savvy, he is often a source for newspaper reporters and helps "spin" or influence their stories. What appears to be reportorial research is sometimes, on closer inspection, a repackaging of Fields' research, briefs, depositions, or the comments of his clients or associates.
In newspaper terminology, he can set the agenda, often by merely filing a lawsuit. For example, "Fired officer sues for $6 million" was the headline for a front-page story in The Commercial Appeal on Harold Hays and the sheriff's department in 1996. Typically, the party being sued, the sheriff's department in this case, declined comment. The attention-grabbing $6 million figure, as is often the case in such lawsuits, was mainly window dressing; the lawsuit was settled for $650,000.
"I certainly don't control the media," says Fields. "I think I have credibility with the media, but that is partly the nature of the cases."
A computer search of stories about Richard Fields turned up over 200 articles from The Commercial Appeal over the last decade, which is as far back as such searches go for that newspaper. The majority of them ran on the front page or the front of the Metro page. Some led to whole series. A partial list (see "Richard Fields' Greatest Hits," page 19): sales practices at Covington Pike Toyota, Cherokee Day Care, the Shelby County Jail, school desegregation, and corruption in the sheriff's department. Some of the reporters who used to write about him are now the editors who make the decisions about where the stories run, including the CA's Metro editor Charles Bernsen and deputy managing editor Otis Sanford.
In The Memphis Flyer, in the last year alone, Fields has been a key source for cover stories about the jail, foster children, and public housing.
A publicist who got a fraction of that attention for a client would be hailed as a genius. With local news increasingly displacing national and international news in newspapers and television newscasts, Fields highlights the uneasy working relationship between lawyers, who are hired advocates, and reporters, who are supposed to be objective. Each side gets something. Publicity can help a lawyer get business, especially if class-action status is sought, or pressure the other side to make a settlement, as in Fields' lawsuit this year against Bud Davis Cadillac. The reporter gets a story with a crusading bent, news appeal, and gritty details that might have been mined by the reporter or might have been handed over by the lawyer.
Editors at The Commercial Appeal declined to comment for this story.
Sometimes Fields is on the side of the angels. He handled a case for low-income homeowners against former assessor Michael Hooks and won more than $3 million but took no fee. Other cases, however, have a distinct political angle, often against members of the Ford family, who happen to be the main rivals of Mayor Herenton.
In the Cherokee Day Care case, Fields said state senator John Ford conspired with operators to steer state funds to Cherokee. The case was hobbled by an unfavorable ruling in federal court, but there is a separate grand jury probe on similar issues. Fields himself was going to become a day-care broker consultant for Herenton, who had plans for the city to become the state's day-care broker in Shelby County. The broker system was scrapped instead. As a lawyer, campaign adviser, and media contact, Fields did all he could to keep the story alive during the 1999 mayoral election when Herenton ran against Joe Ford.
Also during that campaign, Fields was wearing his "campaign attorney" hat when, in the words of The Commercial Appeal, he "drafted an official complaint" to the Shelby County Election Commission about certain actions of campaign workers for candidate Joe Ford. Sounds mighty serious. In plain language, Fields didn't do squat. But this dog-bites-man fluff got prominent coverage that helped keep Ford on the defensive.
Fields' favorite whipping boy is Sheriff A.C. Gilless and the Shelby County Jail. Since 1993 he has won seven settlements and judgments against the department totaling $2.43 million. He (and co-counsel in five of the cases) got about 30 percent of that. Another jail inmate suit seeking $20 million is pending. Gilless did not return calls seeking comment.
"I'm not a self-promoter, but certain exposure helps the public understand what kind of issues I deal with and what solutions I hope for," Fields says. "I give the reporters facts and expect them to investigate fully."
Not everyone does. This newspaper was burned recently when it failed to distinguish between monetary amounts sought and amounts actually paid in jail cases.
And not everyone likes what they see either. Even Herenton says, "A lot of my friends don't understand my friendship with Richard because he irritates the hell out of them." WREG-TV Channel 3 reporter Mike Matthews, a tough questioner of Herenton, is one reporter Fields won't talk to because he thinks Matthews tries to embarrass the mayor.
Fields used Black Monday-style tactics against automobile dealers Bud Davis Cadillac and Covington Pike Toyota on behalf of black employees, or "our guys," as he calls them. Kent Ritchey, general manager of Covington Pike Toyota, told The Commercial Appeal the picketing was aimed at "maximizing settlement opportunities." Contacted by the Flyer, Ritchey declined to comment about Fields. Bud Davis also declined comment.
Fields says fair is fair. The car dealers, he says, launched their own "preemptive publicity" aimed at polishing their image. He does not plan to let up.
Last week Fields got a phone call as he posed for a picture for this story. The Covington Pike Toyota story had attracted some national interest. It seems Memphis might be getting a visit from Jesse Jackson. Fields tucked his cell phone back in his pocket and grinned.
You can e-mail John Branston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Fields' Greatest Hits
Michael Hooks Sr.
Memphis Housing Authority, 1992-2001: "If there was ever a plantation system, MHA was it. They're on the right track now, but basically they need to tear down all public housing and create mixed middle-income housing like what's planned for Greenlaw and LeMoyne Gardens."
Harold Hays (whistleblower in sheriff's department), 1996-1999: "The best client I ever had and, ironically, the most establishment. His ethics were unquestionable."
Mayoral election, 1991: "I was one of Dr. Herenton's original white supporters and encouraged him to run. His comment was, 'But I'm not a politician.' I said, 'That's good.'"
Mayoral election, 1999: "I made sure the day-care issue got emphasized as a real scandal for this city."
Cherokee Day Care, 1999-2001: "An unbelievable scandal involving black entrepreneurs engaged in a corrupt scheme to the disadvantage of poor children and their parents."
Tennessee foster children, 2000-2001: "One of the finest consent decrees I have seen in my life. It affects children most in need."
School desegregation, 1976-2001: "As a former teacher with a master's degree in education, I had to do those cases. Education is the most important issue in the city right now. Along with the Legal Defense Fund, I will continue to pursue the Shelby County school desegregation case which dates back to 1961."
Memphis elections and local and state redistricting, 1991-1997: "I was the lawyer for the NAACP on the runoff provision in city elections. You know, I had forgotten about that one."
Shelby County Jail, 1991-2001: "One of the true scandals of the Eighties and Nineties. Until Judge McCalla came along, no one was willing to deal with it in a systematic fashion, and nobody but Harold Hays was willing to speak out against the corruption in the sheriff's department."
Sales practices at Covington Pike Toyota, 2001: "It took guts for The Commercial Appeal to run that story about an advertiser."