As judge, city leader, teacher, Shakoor strived to 'build a better society'

Adam Shakoor has been called throughout his life to make a difference, especially for the people of Detroit.

That calling led him to a career in law, standing up for the rights of others as an attorney and a judge; to a career in teaching, helping students learn that they, too, can make a difference; and to a career in government, serving as deputy mayor and chief administrative officer of Detroit under Mayor Coleman Young.

In all of his careers, Shakoor, a 1976 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, has been a leader.

"I don't take any credit for any leadership, but when you come up in a home with people who are outspoken and examples for leadership, it's just a natural way of carrying yourself," he said.

The early days

He grew up in the Sojourner Truth public housing complex on Detroit's northeast side. His father, Harvey Caddell, was a union leader, and his mother, Esther Caddell, was one of the first African-American teachers hired at Detroit's former Durfee Junior High School.

"I had these examples who were community and professionally active," Shakoor said. "I am very proud of those examples that I had."

As a child, he was well aware of the ongoing civil rights issues in Detroit and the nation.

"We had our difficulties in the 1950s as we were going through the desegregation of the city," he said. "So, going to college, I had been attuned to the struggle. I had the good fortune of being at Wayne State University at the time when there were many articulate activists involved in anti-war issues, the civil rights movement, student rights movement. These things I was exposed to furthered my desire to learn more and be more active and engaged in making society better."

At Wayne State, he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1971 and a master of education degree in 1974. He began teaching at Wayne County Community College District. Today, 44 years later, he continues teaching business law, criminal justice and African-American studies courses at WCCCD, as well as working as a full-time attorney with his firm, Adam Shakoor & Associates PC.

College days at WSU

He loved teaching from the start, and still does. But his interactions with fellow activists at Wayne State and in the community fueled a fire in him to pursue a law career.

"We had the greatest discussions about what was going on and how we were going to change the world," Shakoor said. "The people I met at Wayne were very strong in their convictions about what they believed needed to be the skillset and obligation that lawyers would have in helping build a better society. That was an attraction for me."

One of the people he met through his college activism was then-state Sen. Coleman Young, who was well connected with young people in the Detroit community.

"I always felt that Sen. Young was destined for great things in terms of the city," Shakoor said.

As the features editor of the independent WSU student newspaper The South End, Shakoor wrote an editorial in 1969 suggesting that Young was the right person to serve as the first African-American mayor of Detroit.

When Young did decide to run for mayor in 1973, Shakoor was asked to join his team and ran a campaign office. He considered joining the new mayor's administration, but decided to go on to law school instead.

"It was a calling that I had," he said. "It wasn't about a title or money but a feeling that I had to make a contribution. I felt at that time that we were heading in a direction where some great things were going to happen in Detroit and that I wanted to be a part of it and that I needed to be more skilled to contribute."

Shakoor and his wife had a growing family at the time.

"I could have attended other law schools, but having a family and having a good relationship with so many people in Detroit, I wanted to build those relationships, and it made no sense for me to leave when I had a great law school readily available with a great reputation for preparing leaders."

At Wayne Law, he was elected as president of the Black Legal Alliance, today known as the Black Law Student Association, during his second year.

"I have many memories of the rigors of study, the assistance of some of our professors and the assistance of students," Shakoor said.

First years in practice

After graduation, he worked as an associate attorney with Pitts Mann & Patrick PC, and, from 1979 to 1981, he practiced as a partner with Ashford Cannon Edison Lumumba & Shakoor. The firm was known for challenging racial injustice.

Shakoor, who had become a Muslim in college and changed his name to reflect his faith, considers a federal case he handled during that time, Derrick Ali and Samuel Rahman v. Perry Johnson, as one of the most memorable of his career.

"I represented two prisoners in a challenge to the correctional system in Jackson," he said. "They were not allowed to practice their religion as Muslims and wrote me asking if I'd consider it. I took the case."

Shakoor prevailed for his clients, and, as a result, the state prison system changed its rules, hired its first Islamic chaplain and allowed Islamic inmates their dietary and worship practices and to observe the holy month of Ramadan.

He also was celebrated for a criminal case during that time, winning acquittal for Ameer Mujahid in the homicide of jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson outside of Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. The trial lasted four weeks and was one of only a few cases that noted Detroit police Detective Gil Hill ever lost in his career, Shakoor said.

Taking the bench

In 1981, Shakoor was appointed as a judge of the Common Pleas Court for Wayne County by Gov. William Milliken. It was the first time in the nation's history that a Muslim served as a judge. That year, the state Legislature joined the Common Pleas Court with the Traffic and Ordinance Division of Detroit Recorder's Court to create the 36t District Court in Detroit.

U.S. District Court Judge Marianne Battani of the Eastern District of Michigan also was appointed to the Common Pleas Court in 1981.

"Adam and I started together," she said. "He's amazing. That's when I first met him, and it was obvious from the start that he is a born leader."

Shakoor went on to lead 36th District Court for two terms as chief judge, overseeing the judicial and administrative operations of 31 judges, six magistrates and more than 500 employees. The court was the largest district court in the country housed under one roof and the busiest court in the state.

He is proud of the innovations he was able to make there, including establishing a drug docket to focus on the city's drug problems and an environmental court that cleared up a backlog of cases dating back more than 10 years. He set up Saturday court sessions and acquired funding from the Legislature to fully computerize the court for the first time.

Actions at the court

In 1986, a situation occurred at the court that is memorable for Shakoor and gained national attention. The court had moved in December 1985 to its current location, Madison Center. His first term as chief judge began in January, and court staff and judges were unhappy with some of the conditions of the new building but persevered.

In March, a Hudson's warehouse sale was taking place in the building next to the Madison Center. The day was foggy, and many vehicles were idling in the increased traffic generated by the sale.

"The fumes from the automobiles would not dissipate in that atmosphere, and the air vents for the court were on the second floor," Shakoor said. "All of the fumes were being sucked in by the vents and being dispersed throughout the building. I got a call from a judge about a person in his courtroom who had fainted. He said he was leaving the bench and that something was going on in this building."

The court had no evacuation plan at the time, but Shakoor knew he had to act. He called the state court administrator's office and was told that someone would call him back with authorization. He didn't wait for an official green light.

"I called the security chief and told him to have all officers go and empty the courtrooms immediately," Shakoor said.

The speedy evacuation of 2,000 people was handled with efficiency, and, as a result, no one died. Eighty people were taken to the hospital suffering from dizziness, vomiting or falling unconscious, according to a June 30, 1986, article in Forbes. The court remained closed for about 10 days, while court business was handled in other locations, until the Madison Center was declared safe for occupancy. Environmental tests failed to identify the cause of the problem, according to the Forbes article.

Shakoor said he was told it was a combination of the dense fog and the heavy traffic, and that odds of it happening again were slim.

Another experience Shakoor handled as chief judge that stands out in his mind was because of overcrowding of the county jail.

"The sheriff had a policy that misdemeanants would be released and furloughed, and this had been going on for years and years," Shakoor said. "Some of the judges were so angered by this. Some of these people being released were very dangerous."

"I called Coleman (Young) and said, 'Be forewarned, mayor. You're going to have some problems unless you open up some of your precincts to hold some of the prisoners.' The mayor said he would work with me."

Shakoor helped County Executive Edward McNamara and Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard Kaufman find a way to deal with the overcrowding problem, and a solution building the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck was found.

"That was important to the ongoing safety of Wayne County," Shakoor said.

Serving as deputy mayor

After eight years on the bench, he was heartsick over the many young men he saw who had no skills, no jobs and no hope. Crack cocaine use was an epidemic in the city. So, in 1989, when Young asked Shakoor to serve as deputy mayor of Detroit, he was ready and eager to help make a difference.

One project he developed in his new role was the Boot Camp After Care Detention Program for young males, which was so successful the state adopted it as a model. The boot camp project, operated as a cooperative effort of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Detroit Board of Education and city of Detroit, was the first time in the nation that a boot camp detention program involved substance abuse counseling, vocational training and health education, he said.

He became known as Detroit's "crime czar" for his efforts coordinating city, state and federal agencies to fight the drug problem, for his development of crime-fighting activities that also involved substance abuse treatment and prevention, and for overseeing the forfeiture of all assets seized from drug dealers by Detroit police.

Shakoor as deputy mayor represented the city in its dealings with the federal government and helped Detroit receive more than $1 million for past due equitable sharing funds. He served as chairman of the Cluster Leaders Management Group, which brought together the directors and deputy directors for all city departments to communicate and solve problems together, according to his official biography on file with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

"A lot of my time spent with the mayor was to work things through so they could be a part of the fundamental practices of the city," Shakoor said.

When he was approached to run for mayor himself, he turned it down.

"For me, that was not a goal," he said. "I was using my skillset already to help the city change. I came to make a difference."

In 1994, Shakoor returned to private practice, working for Reynolds Beeby & Magnuson PC and in 1997 as a managing shareholder of Shakoor Grubba & Miller PC before founding his current practice in 2004.

Over the years, he's received more than 100 awards and honors for his work in law, government and teaching and for his community activism. Shakoor is appreciative, but he isn't one to boast about his accomplishments.

"I stood for those things I believed were right, and I advocated for those," he said.

Published: Mon, Nov 02, 2015

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