Oral History of Honorable Arthur Burnett, Sr.
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical Society
of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is William Marmon and the interviewee is
Honorable Arthur Burnett. The interview took place at the home of William Marmon in Chevy Chase
Maryland, on Monday, September 23, 2019. This is the first interview.
MR. MARMON: Today we are going to start with your birth and early years in Spotsylvania
County, Virginia. Please tell about what it was like growing up as a boy
in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in 1935, when you were born.
JUDGE BURNETT: March 15, 1935 in a midwife delivery in my mother’s bedroom, and
indeed the midwife was my father’s older sister. I was born in a house
where we did not have electricity yet. I recall when I was about four or
five years of age electricians coming in and putting in electricity and
hanging lights from our ceiling. Our house was located basically out in
the county from the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, at about a two to
three miles from where George Washington reputedly threw a silver dollar
across the Rappahannock River.
I recall when I got to be about four or five years of age, my mother
started reading kindergarten-type books to me and teaching me to read
about Jack and Jill and Spot and so forth, and by the time I was about five
or six, I started reading Jet magazine, a black magazine, about the lives of
Negroes, or colored people as they were then called, and Afro-Americans,
and I started asking questions, “Mom, why are colored people treated
differently than other people?” Why aren’t we treated based on our
individual personalities and what we can do?”
Right from the beginning, they said I always had an inquiring mind
about human behavior and relationships, and then in 1941, I started school
with a teacher by the name of Eleanor Lewis who taught 1st through the 3rd
grades at a school where we were bussed. The bus was provided by my
uncle, because the county didn’t have county buses to take Negro kids to
school. There were only two Negro schools in the county. They were
Summit Elementary and John J. Wright High School. I had such an
inquisitive mind that the schoolteacher, Ms. Lewis, kind of mentored me
and so forth, and then since I was kind of learning fast and didn’t realize it
at the time, she had me assisting in teaching the other children. Therefore,
when I finished 1st grade, she made me her teacher’s assistant, and when I
got to the 2
nd grade, to teach the 1
st grade. And then when I got to 2nd
grade, she had me teach both 2nd and 1st year classes. We had a second
teacher who taught the 4
th through the 6th grade, but when I got to the
point of being transferred to the 4th grade, she transferred herself as the
senior teacher and said she wanted me to work with her, and said
therefore, “I’m going to go with you.” That was the 4
th through the 6
grade. Each time, I ended up being her teaching assistant, and she would
preach to me by saying, “Arthur, God gave you a great mind. You’re
going to be the first colored lawyer from this area.” I said “I would do my
When I got to the 6
th grade, going into the 7
th grade, I was going to
be transferred to John J. Wright High School, which at that point only 7th
to the 11th grade. There was a Ms. Sadie Combs who was the librarian.
She called Ms. Combs and said “You have a child prodigy coming to you,
his name is Arthur Burnett.” We want you to take over mentoring him
because he’s going to go places in life. So when I got to John J. Wright
High School, the librarian made me her assistant librarian. Every week or
so, she’d give me a book to read about Negro history and segregation. I
was a vociferous reader. By the time I got to my junior year, I had
finished almost all the high school courses. Mr. A. L. Scott, the principal,
said you are too young to go to college. I want you to be my assistant, and
I want you to travel across the state of Virginia to all the contests I can get
you in, speaking contests, oratory competitions, and so forth. I was the
John J. Wright representative in programs all over the state of Virginia.
Indeed, I also had excelled in farming enterprises, raising chickens
and pigs and so forth. At that point, the Fredericksburg Fair permitted
Negroes to put entrants into the fair. I ended up winning blue ribbons in
competition with other farmers and gardeners. As a result of that, Mr. E.
A. Ragland, my agriculture instructor, and Mr. A.L. Scott, my principal,
wanted me to go to Tuskegee Institute to become another Booker T.
Washington or a George Washington Carver to become an agricultural
expert. They had not anticipated Brown at that point. They said we want
you to become a teacher of agricultural science. “Teach Negro boys how
to be excellent farmers.” I said I don’t want to work with just animals and
chickens. I want to work with people.
And, of course, at 12 or 13 years of age, as a Baptist, you had also
become a Sunday school teacher. As a Sunday school teacher, I was such
an orator that the minister of our church said he wanted me to be his youth
minister. I started preaching sermons when I was 12 or years of age. And I
said don’t want to just teach people to live to get to Heaven, I want to
bring a little bit of Heaven to Earth. I want to do things seven days a
week, not just on weekends. So then they said go to Tuskegee Institute
and then go to Virginia Union seminary to become a Baptist minister, so
in addition to teaching Negroes how to be farm experts, you can then be a
preacher. I said well I’m interested in more than just preaching and telling
people what to do. I think even before I noticed the Lord’s Prayer that
there shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. I said Jesus Christ, when he
was 12 years of age, said I must be about my Father’s work. I think I must
be about what God has in store for me, and I said I’m not going to
Tuskegee. I’m going to Howard University and its Law School and
become a lawyer to try to change life in America.
MR. MARMON: I want to go back to Spotsylvania. You had animals at your house?
JUDGE BURNETT: No. I raised pigs and chickens. My grandfather even gave me a pig to
raise, my personal pig, and that pig got placed in the farm market and was
sold at a profit. I raised chickens and placed them in fair competitions. I
raised rabbits. I had rabbits that were so tame that they would run around
the yard. I’d pick them up and pet them, and I could talk with the animals.
I got to be a person who was considered a farm expert. Mr. E. A. Ragland
had me teach other youngsters how to be farm experts. And I won blue
MR. MARMON: Tell me a little about your parents.
JUDGE BURNETT: My father only had a sixth-grade education. He worked at Sylvania plant,
which was a cellophane manufacturing plant that manufactured stuff like
wraps you see on food stuff and so forth, and he was its kind-of outside
person to go to the post office to pick up the mail, go to the bank and
deposit checks and run other errands in the town. And fortunately, I
guess, for him, he had foot problems, so he didn’t get drafted into World
War II, although he was old enough to go into World War II as an enlistee
or draftee. During WWII, he would end up working two shifts. He said I
only got a sixth-grade education, but I’ll work sixteen hours a day if I have
to, to make sure my children get an education. And during 1940, 1941
until 1952, when I went off to college, I would see him on Monday and
wouldn’t see him again until Friday because he would go to work at 7:00
in the morning and come home at 11:00 at night and go again at 5:00 or
6:00 in the morning when I was still asleep.
MR. MARMON: How about your mom?
JUDGE BURNETT: Mom was a housekeeper, and she canned vegetables and cleaned houses
and so forth. I guess after we got to be teenagers, she became a maid
cleaning motels and other rooming houses to try to add to the money to
put me and my sister, who is five years younger and my younger brother
who is seven years younger, to save money so all three of us could get a
MR. MARMON: Were they born in Virginia?
JUDGE BURNETT: Yes. They were both born in Virginia. My father was from King George
County, and my mother was from King George County but later moved to
MR. MARMON: You said you have one brother and sister?
JUDGE BURNETT: One sister and one brother. My sister is five years younger than I am. My
brother is seven-and-a-half years younger. So there was a substantial gap
between me and my two siblings.
MR. MARMON: Tell me a little bit more about your siblings.
JUDGE BURNETT: My sister Lenora Burnett Davis was five years younger, and my brother,
Richard Earl Burnett, is 7 ½ years younger. They came along, and I was
the big brother, so they say I grew up like I was a generation ahead of
MR. MARMON: Are they alive today?
JUDGE BURNETT: They are both alive and very active. My sister actually did a Ph.D.
program and was the admissions person for Johns Hopkins School of
Public Health. She was president of HIV organization in Baltimore and
has become one of the leading HIV experts in the country today.
My brother ended up becoming a musician. He was a music
director for schools in Richmond, Virginia, and played in numerous bands.
He paid his way as a band leader or participant through college and then
through his master’s degree.
MR. MARMON: You were aware of segregation in Virginia when you were growing up?
JUDGE BURNETT: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I finished high school in 1952, I
applied for a job at an office supply place as a stock boy. I put things on
the shelf, mopped up the floor and so forth. I was the only colored
employee to do that at seventeen years of age. But in order to make
money for college, I also took a night job at Howard Johnson restaurant.
So I had two jobs the first summer after I finished high school.
I had an incident that summer at Howard Johnson restaurant in
July of 1952 on the third weekend in July. My father’s vehicle was in the
shop. I was left at the restaurant to finish mopping up, cleaning up, and
locking up while I waited for my father to come pick me up. I locked the
place, went out to the back stoop to wait for him. Before my father got
there, a police car pulled up. Two officers jump out, and as close as the
distance from here and that wall, about 8-10 feet away. They approached
me with guns drawn. I said, “Officer, what’s the problem? I work here.”
The driver said, “Yeah, I bet you do,” in a loud arrogant voice, with his
gun pointed directly at me. At that point, my father drove up about sixty
feet or more away, and they made him stay in his car. They actually
arrested me and put me in the backseat of their car and locked the door.
Fortunately, I didn’t get a rap sheet. They took me to Mr. Overtons’
home, and he said he’s the best employee I’ve ever had. He was going to
go away to college, or I would make him manager. And that’s the reason I
didn’t get an arrest record. But I was suspected of being a burglar and
trying to break into the restaurant. This was in July. Had I been like
Brown and made a quick move like I was reaching for something, you
might not be talking to me today, or if I had been cursing or belligerent.
But I stood frozen like a statute and said “Officer, I work here.” And then
I said, Mr. Overton, and then the officer said we have to check on your
story. They put me in the back of the car, locked the doors, and drove me
to Mr. Overton’s home, and that’s how I was exonerated. Had I been
loud, boisterous or disorderly, I could have been shot that night.
MR. MARMON: Were you affected by the fact that you couldn’t use public restrooms?
JUDGE BURNETT: Absolutely. I couldn’t even try on clothes. You had to buy your clothing
product by eye-viewing it, take it home, and if it didn’t fit, tough. When I
got married, my wife went with my mother to go shopping, and they
wouldn’t even let her try on wedding clothes. This was in the l960’s.
MR. MARMON: You somehow transcended all of that.
JUDGE BURNETT: That reaffirms my previous disposition of saying I wanted to become a
lawyer and solve these kinds of problems. A person should not be treated
as inferior just because the color of a person’s skin or complexion. And
suffer from someone jumping to a conclusion that they’re hoodlums or
criminals. So I went to Howard University and notwithstanding being a
straight-A student all through high school, I had not taken geometry and
my English composition wasn’t up to college standards, so at Howard, I
had to take two high school remedial courses during my first semester,
September to December of 1952. My other courses were college courses.
I made A’s in all those courses. I went to the dean of the school of liberal
arts, Dean Miller, and pled with him to let me take six extra hours to make
up for the shortfall because I had to take remedial courses. After two
hours of begging and pleading with him in December of 1952, he let me
take them. He said I hope you’re with us next fall when you would be a
sophomore. You have a lot of guts and courage. He said he had never
done that before, but he would allow me to do it. I took twenty-three
hours the second semester, made all A’s, and was number one in my class.
Then, as a result of that performance, I got to be a sophomore.
There was a course involving juvenile delinquency in the Master’s social
work program. I went to the dean and asked can I take that course because
I wanted to become a lawyer. The course was taught by E. Franklin
Frazier, one of the authors the book, The Black Bourgeoisie. I took that
course my sophomore year in the masters of social work program and
made a B-Plus, and E. Franklin Frazier ended up being one of my key
MR. MARMON: Where did you live while at Howard?
JUDGE BURNETT: When I first came to Washington, I lived in Cook Hall, one of the men’s
dormitories. That was in September, October, and November. I got to a
point where I said I can’t afford to stay on campus because I developed
such a reputation as a good student that I had students lined up outside my
dorm door for me to tutor and teach them. I didn’t have time to do my
own studying. So I went to one of my mother’s sisters who lived in
Washington, DC. She is now deceased. I said I can’t find time to do my
own studying and activities because everybody’s pounding on my door,
can I come live with you. She said, “We don’t have space, but my
neighbor next door has a sister who lives in upper Northwest Washington,
and they have a big two-story house, and they would love to have a
studious kid like you.” She called her, and I ended up moving off campus
and living with Ms. Bonner and her husband as if I was their grandson.
One night while still living in the dormitory between 7:00 p.m. and
11:00 p.m., I had twenty-one students asking me to be their counselor,
mentor because of the reputation I had developed. In addition, because of
my reputation, they made me basically the assistant to the Dean of Men,
MR. MARMON: How did you survive not being bitter by the segregated South?
JUDGE BURNETT: I didn’t have time to be bitter. I had to have time to defend myself to be
able to cope and handle the situation and make changes in society. So I
continued making “A” grades, ended up being number one in my class,
and lo’ and behold, Brown v. Board of Education came down. Well,
before that, my reputation got to be such at Howard that I became a
fraternity brother in a fraternity called Omega Psi Phi, and indeed, one of
the founders of that organization was Professor Frank Coburn. He was a
physics instructor and taught introduction to the sciences. I was so well
known, that instead of becoming president of that Greek organization, they
made me president of all the Greek organizations on the Howard
University campus. So I was going along pretty happy, just doing the
usual things, which I enjoyed.
And lo and behold, Brown v. Board of Education came along in
May 1954. In my sophomore year also, Mordecai Johnson, the first black
president of Howard University, was contacted by Congressman Adam
Clayton Powell, who had a radio station. He said I’m protesting
segregation in America. I have a radio station every Saturday. I want one
of your students at Howard to be my guest on these radio stations. So my
sophomore year on Saturdays, I was picked by President Mordecai
Johnson to be Howard’s representative on the radio station in 1953. I
coined a phrase that a person should be judged by the quality of his
performance, not by the accident of his birth or the color of his skin and
support the idea that equality should be based on the individual character
and abilities and not racial issues.
MR. MARMON: What were some of the things you talked about?
JUDGE BURNETT: What I’m talking about right now, do you think segregation in America
should continue to exist? What are your views on what should be done
about segregation in America? That was before Brown was decided.
Brown was decided in May of 1954. This was 1953. I was the
spokesperson for Howard University and its college students in an
abandoned warehouse on V Street NW, right across from where Howard
University Hospital is now, a black radio station, and I would engage in
conversations with him like I’m engaging in conversations with you now.
I thought at that point that was the end of my sojourn with reference to
civil rights matters. Then, October of 1954 came, and James Nabrit, the
Vice President of Howard and former Dean of Howard Law School, called
me to his office. I thought he called me there to talk about some Howard
University school matters. He said, “Arthur, you’re the best we have. We
want you to apply to law school now.” I protested and said I want to go to
Howard Law School, I’m number one in my class, I want to finish college
and then go to Howard Law School.” He said what you can do is go
ahead and apply now to University of Virginia Law School to break the
back of massive resistance to desegregation to comply with the Brown
decision, and those law schools in the top in the nation will admit you
based on your academic record. Once you get in their program, you can
waive or give up your right to a combination law and college degree and
come back here to Howard in the summer between your law school years
and finish up your four years, so you have the privilege of having a
Howard University degree. I said well on those terms, I will go ahead and
volunteer to become a lead plaintiff in the Farmville-Prince Edward
County school cases. By the way, this gentleman sitting next to the wall is
lawyer Thurgood Marshall. He will be your lawyer. I will be his
assistant. And in Virginia is Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, two
key lawyers in the Farmville School cases, up to this point will be
associated with us. We want you to apply to these law schools now.
So at the end of October 1954, I applied to Columbia, New York
University, Syracuse, Boston, and the University of Virginia. I was
expecting to get a letter from those institutions asking me to come in for
an interview. The first letter I got from each of these schools except the
University of Virginia, and opened was “You are admitted.” They didn’t
even bother to interview me. I never received acknowledgement from the
University of Virginia that it had received my application.
At that point, Dr. Nabrit was the number two person on my case,
kept me advised and said he and Thurgood had met with Herb Brownell,
who was then the Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice, and
said when your case goes public, we will give you two U.S. Marshals to
be with you 24 hours a day to keep you alive.
In November, a month after this October initial interview, I went
home and told my parents I wasn’t going to Howard Law School. They
first thought that because we were in the middle of the Korean War and
everything that I wanted to be involved in the military. I said no, it’s not
that. I’ve been asked by Thurgood Marshall and NAACP to be the lead
plaintiff in this Virginia case. I told my father “That may mean you’ll lose
your job.” My father said “That doesn’t matter. I can’t afford to play golf
with these white guys, but your uncle has a taxi cab company. I can drive
for him, and I can do handiwork around town.” And at that point my
mother started praying the 23d Psalm. And she said it might as well be
you to break the back of segregation. And I told my mother that protesters
and Klan members might kidnap, rape you, or even kill you. She said,
“We’ll run that risk.”
MR. MARMON: Did anything happen?
JUDGE BURNETT: No. Nothing happened.
MR. MARMON: You didn’t go to Virginia Law School?
JUDGE BURNETT: No. What happened was during the period of October and November until
April, we had rumblings from Arkansas about the governor closing all the
colored schools. Virginia closed schools in five counties including Prince
Edwards County. In April of 1955, Dr. Nabrit called me to his office and
told me that the NAACP decided they did not have enough lawyers or
money to go forward in my case and deal with the situation in Arkansas,
which was the Little Rock Nine case. They didn’t have enough lawyers
and money so they were going to settle the U. Va. case and get one of
these other law schools that already admitted me. The state of Virginia
agreed to pay all my expenses at another law school. At that point, I was
prepared to go to Columbia. Thurgood wanted me to go to Columbia. But
three weeks after that discussion, NYU, which was my number 2 choice,
gave me an irresistible offer. In addition to a full scholarship, NYU made
me a teaching assistant in the masters of law program with Emile Zola
Berman, who was considered in competition with Louis Nizer, one of the
two best medical malpractice negligence lawyers in America. That’s how
I ended up at NYU. I declined Columbia. I said my sister and brother are
behind me, and if I go through law school with the equivalent of two full
scholarships, my parents won’t have to worry money for my legal
education. They can save all that money for my two siblings. So that’s
why I ended up at NYU.
MR. MARMON: Tell me again, did Virginia pay your way?
JUDGE BURNETT: NYU billed Virginia, and Virginia paid NYU all my tuition and expenses
for the whole three years.
MR. MARMON: In an attempt to avoid confrontation for not admitting a Negro?
JUDGE BURNETT: Yes. To avoid having me attend University of Virginia Law School.
MR. MARMON: Have you been back to the University of Virginia?
JUDGE BURNETT: Yes. As a matter of fact, during the Carter administration, I took a sevenweek course there in senior executive service management under the
federal government. And indeed while in the military, I was offered a
JAG commission in the Army and was supposed to spend two months
there, but I turned that down and accepted a general commission in the
Adjutant General Corps, which I could come back to civilian life as a
reservist. So in September 1959, I declined a JAG commission and came
back to the Justice Department.
MR. MARMON: want to hear a little more about your law school years at NYU.
JUDGE BURNETT: I was surprised when I got to NYU. I always had always assumed that at
NYU blacks were freely integrated into activities. I got to NYU, and I
ended up being the only Negro in my class. There was one in the class
before me. In the day division, there were only two of us in the whole
school. Ironically, as a result of being the only person of color in my
class, every time the professor called on a student, I was that student, and I
always had the answer. As a result, my Jewish friends treated me like I
came here from Mars or outer space. I even had one Jewish friend who
was getting married in Columbia, South Carolina, in the summer of 1957,
and he had listed me to be in his wedding party for the wedding to be held
in early August. It wasn’t until I raised the issue with him about me
participating in a wedding in South Carolina that he realized that would be
an issue. He said he had never even thought of that. The hotel said, no,
you can’t have it here with a Negro in the wedding party. So I had to
withdraw from his wedding so not to upset everything. The professors
were just amazed that I was always prepared. Sometimes classmates
actually applauded when I would answer. By the end of my second year,
out of a class of 300 students, I was number 11 in my class.
MR. MARMON: Were you on Law Review?
JUDGE BURNETT: I was on Law Review as associate research editor and prepared a Note on
one person one vote, which was not published on the ground that it was
“too theoretical.” I was the president of the Benjamin F. Butler Law Club,
and actively participated in other activities.
MR. MARMON: I want to go back a little bit to life in Virginia in 1930’s, 1940’s, and
1950’s. How do you feel about that now?
JUDGE BURNETT: As a matter of fact, I think that Virginia has changed, and people have
even changed. When I was 10 or 11 years of age, I started recruiting
minor jobs from my white neighbors like mowing their lawns, washing
their cars, washing their windows. I even had one white boss who ran a
filling station, an Esso, and I went around to the filling station, and lo and
behold, and then I worked for another white guy who was building a brick
house, a county officer, and he had me help him build his house. They
said you’re so industrious, why do you need to go to college. And my
white neighbors would say you can make a decent living just being a
handyman for the whole community. I said I don’t want to waste my
intellectual ability just being a handyman.
When I was about 11 or 12 years of age, my parents would visit
relatives and friends. I would say I can’t go because I have jobs to do. So
I was a hustler, you might say. I would pick up soda bottles that people
threw away along the side of the road, turn them into the store and get two
cents on a bottle. I did all kinds of odd jobs. The person who ran this
Esso station had a chicken house, and I took care of his chicken flock. I
cleaned the poop out of the chicken house and so forth. And indeed
sometimes he would take a nap in the afternoon and leave the station for
me to run, and I’m just 13 or 14 years of age. I said I’m demonstrating
what talent you are losing because of segregation.
When I told them I was going to college to become a lawyer, their
comment was Negros don’t have money to pay a lawyer and white folks,
they’re not going to patronize you when they can get a white lawyer, so
why do you want to be a lawyer? Why don’t you just stay here and keep
doing what you’re doing now?
MR. MARMON: What was your answer to that?
JUDGE BURNETT: My answer was now is not the time for me not to do something. We have
to change the attitude of people where people are recognized for their
talent and ability and what they can do and achieve. That’s why I’m
working as I’m working now. As a matter of fact, when I got to be a
senior in high school, the local newspaper, The Freelance Star, did an
interview of me and published a story about a young colored boy admitted
to go to college saves $1,000 for college. That was front-page news, that I
saved $1,000 cash in 1950s money of my own, just through my personal
hustling. Like I said, I raised chickens. I even sold chickens, and
sometimes took them to the butcher shop.
MR. MARMON: So you made the best of it.
JUDGE BURNETT: There was a time in the evening when it was getting near dark and I was
mowing people’s lawns, a police car driving through the area pulled up
and said, “Boy, what are you doing out there?” I said I’m working
mowing this woman’s lawn. They didn’t believe it. They went up and
knocked on the door to make sure that I wasn’t casing their place for
robbery or burglary or something. So I even had police officers
questioning my being a workaholic, you might say.
MR. MARMON: You finished Howard in three years.
JUDGE BURNETT: To back up, actually, in the summers of 1956 and 1957, I came back to
Howard to finish up a complete four-year program. I declined to take a
combination degree based on satisfactory completion of my first year of
law school. I came back to Howard and got my degree from Howard in
October of 1957, summa cum laude, with a 3.93 GPA, just shy of a 4.0 for
four years of work. The following June, I received my law degree from
NYU. I finished number 24 in a class of nearly 300 students. So actually
I did seven years of academic work in six calendar years. So I had the
distinction at this point, at least in my fraternity of being the highestranked Omega Phi Psi graduate from Howard University.
MR. MARMON: You went immediately into the military?
JUDGE BURNETT: No. Let me back up. While at NYU, I had entered law school with the
idea of applying for a JAG commission, Judge Advocate General, as a
lawyer in the Air Force because I had also in college been in the Air Force
ROTC program for the first two years of college, and I was the number
one ROTC person at that point as well. But when I began my third year,
at the Bolling Air Force Base for physical examination, my eyes
disqualified me for pilot training. So I decided then to withdraw from the
ROTC program because I could no longer apply to fly planes. So I entered
law school with the idea of applying for a JAG commission in the Air
Force. In my third year in Law School I applied to the U.S. Department of
Justice and I was selected for the honors program but still subject to being
drafted. So I applied immediately when I finished law school for a JAG
commission in the Air Force. In the meantime, the local draft board had
not held up drafting me even though the Air Force advised them that I was
in the top list of candidates they were considering. So after about four
months with the Justice Department, I went on active duty in November of
1958, as a private E1, like I had only a high school education. The second
day I was on duty, they made me an acting sergeant in charge of a platoon.
I did that for eight weeks, and then lo and behold, the second eight weeks
in advance administrative training they made me the professor, and the
teacher in the second eight-week course. I thought they would assign me
to at least to a law office. I had been admitted to the bar and was a
licensed lawyer. Then after the eight-weeks as part of cadre, even though
I was a draftee, I was shipped to Ft. Ord, California, again to an Army
Personnel Operation as a Chief Personnel Specialist to the Sergent Major
and to a Colonel who was a commanding officer of a brigade of five battle
groups of twenty-five companies. The commanding general and the
deputy commanding general at Ft. Ord were killed in an airplane crash.
Colonel Warren, who was the brigade commander, became acting post
commander. He was a full colonel. I ended up becoming an acting like a
colonel, in the sense that I did his work, and then every day at 3:00 p.m. he
would come inside and sign papers. But I oversaw the operation of a full
brigade of five battle groups, twenty-five companies, and I even ended up
getting a special commendation from William Brucker, who had been a
member of Congress and Secretary of Army. They wanted me to stay on
active duty. I said I don’t want to stay on active duty to spend 18 years
getting a rank if I’m doing what I’m doing now. So I applied for a JAG
commission in the Army and in September of 1960, they offered me a
JAG commission, but they wanted me to stay on active duty another four
years. I said I don’t want to be on active duty another four years, so give
me a commission in any field they thought I was qualified–military police
or quartermaster corps. They gave me a second lieutenant commission as
a reservist in the Army’s Adjutant General Corps, Personnel
I came back to Washington at the end of November 1960 to return
to the Justice Department. John F. Kennedy had just been elected. On
January 21, 1961, Bobby Kennedy called for me, and that opened up a
door that put me at the heart of the civil rights movement. I ended up
being a special assistant to Robert Kennedy to make sure the Communist
party would not infiltrate the Martin Luther King movement and to make
sure the FBI did not engage in unlawful practices and to make sure black
leaders did not commit any crimes. I was represented as Kennedy’s aide
or his butler, but I was his eyes and ears in the civil rights movement, and
I was sworn to the same standards as a CIA agent. And for three-and-ahalf years, from January 21, 1961, until April of 1965, I was a confidential
inside agent of the administration. Indeed, for three-and-a-half years, I
was under surveillance by the FBI.
MR. MARMON: Wow.
JUDGE BURNETT: I’m still not mentioning anything I know that’s not already in the public
domain. Indeed, when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy
recused himself and deputized me to act for him and oversee the Lee
Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby incident and fiasco in Dallas, Texas.
MR. MARMON: Wow. What did the FBI think about that?
JUDGE BURNETT: When I was investigated, before appointment by Ronald Reagan, the FBI
agent told me, he said that there are 3 ½ years’ worth of tape on me and
that I’m cleaner than any FBI agent he could find. This agent was sitting
in my living room. My middle daughter let the agent in while I was
outside. I came in, and there’s a stranger sitting in my living room. I said,
“Who are you and why are you here?” He said I’m an FBI agent and I’m
investigating you for appointment as a judge by President Reagan, and
then he went on and mentioned about the 3 ½ years of FBI tapes.
MR. MARMON: Shall we stop here for today?
JUDGE BURNETT: I think it’s a good point.
Oral History of Honorable Arthur Burnett, Sr.