This Life: Gate City Bar president helping the village that helped him

Feb 06, 2018
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Marquise Byrd, who wants to become a litigator, photographs Gate City Bar Association President Clyde Mize and Skye Williams, who hopes to serve as a Judge Advocate General officer in the military. The South Gwinnett High students attended law firm Morris, Manning & Martin’s summer program for aspiring attorneys. CONTRIBUTED BY DON MORGAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Clyde Mize was attending a forum last year at Douglass High School, when a handful of teachers stood to lament the proposed shutdown of their elementary school in southwest Atlanta.

They weren’t just a school, they were a close-knit community that not only provided classroom instruction but emotional support to students and even supplies and food with money from their own pockets.

Moved by their stories, Mize, a resident of Smyrna, set out to find the school’s principal. He wanted to do something for the teachers, and within weeks began providing them breakfast and lunch.

Teachers, he said, were part of the village that helped him become the man, the husband, the father that he is today.

And so it just seemed right that he’d give to the village that provided him nourishment when his single mom was unable to do so.

“The teacher would give me an apple,” Mize recalled, dropping his head to conceal the tears. “The village changed my life. I’m just trying to be a good member of the village.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone making the argument that Clyde Mize hasn’t been.

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At just 45, he has spent nearly two decades in a perpetual handoff like an athlete in a relay race. Not just passing the baton but reaching back to pull others along with him.

He chairs the State Bar of Georgia Diversity Program and the High School Pipeline Program for minority students interested in law school. Two of the former participants graduated from law school in 2017.

Concerned about the dearth of Hispanics and African-Americans entering law school, for instance, he convinced his partners at Morris, Manning & Martin LLP in 2009 to provide paid internships to metro Atlanta high school students.

Over the past two years, he has helped shepherd more than 40 young men and boys through a leadership institute run by the Greater Metropolitan Atlanta Chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc.

And just last week, Mize was sworn in as president of another village that he says nurtured him — the Gate City Bar Association, the first bar association established by and for African-Americans in Georgia.

For that, he is both humbled and excited, he said.

When Gate City was founded 70 years ago, the number of African-American attorneys were so few, meetings could be held in a member’s living room. But it was up to them to provide a place for African-American attorneys to receive the training or support they needed to be successful.

“We didn’t have African-Americans who were partners at majority law firms, or who were general or in-house counsel at major corporations across town,” Mize said. “Many of those people were pioneering civil rights attorneys who worked in small firms or were government attorneys. They challenged the status quo to make them realize that others could make valuable contributions to the legal profession. They pushed down the door so that people like me could work at places like Morris, Manning & Martin.”

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Last month, he took the baton and set out running once more.

Mize can’t say exactly when the dream came to him, but in a third-floor conference room at his law firm, he recalled wanting to be an attorney while watching episodes of “Perry Mason” and wondering out loud why none of the lawyers looked like him.

North Atlanta High School students Nicolas Delporte and Katherine Waken, who are both considering legal careers, celebrate with Clyde Mize after his swearing-in as president of the Gate City Bar Association. Both attended law firm Morris, Manning & Martin’s summer program to get diverse students interested in legal careers. CONTRIBUTED BY DON MORGAN PHOTOGRAPHY Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Well, you do it,” his mother, Luella, challenged him.

He was probably 10 years old. His father hadn’t even finished high school, and his mother had taken only a few courses in junior college. She knew that education would change the trajectory of her son’s life. Missing school for any reason was out of the question. It would be like her missing a parent-teacher conference, and that wasn’t going to happen.

“You’d be smelling like Vicks walking out of the house,” Mize said.

Luella insisted her son take the harder course when he wanted to take the easier ones. She signed him up and rode the bus with him so he could attend free enrichment programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when all he wanted to do was watch television.

“The cool thing for me was I started seeing other smart black kids,” Mize said. “My mother knew that this stuff would change my life and it did.”

About a dozen former interns, including Morehouse student Qualon Bobbitt (right), turned out last week to see Clyde Mize sworn in as president of the Gate City Bar Association. Bobbitt is a beneficiary of the diversity program Mize founded at Morris, Manning & Martin to encourage minority students to pursue law degrees. CONTRIBUTED BY DON MORGAN PHOTOGRAPHY Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After graduating from high school in 1991, Mize enrolled at the University of Illinois and immediately got involved in organizations like student government, the NAACP college chapter, and the Minority Association of Future Attorneys.

Tours to law schools made the dream come alive.

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He graduated from law school from the University of Iowa in 1998 and four years later arrived here in Atlanta. He was polished. He was confident. He still wore glasses, but his crooked teeth had been made straight and the speech impediment corrected.

Growing up, he talked fast, often tripping over words, especially those that started with an S. But he’d been taught to slow down and be intentional about his speech.

Clyde Mize was about to get paid for, well, talking.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It wasn’t easy at first. He couldn’t find a job, but in stepped a member of the Gate City Bar, his village again.

He made the call to his law firm and doors were opened. In 2003, he met two partners at MMM, future members of his village, and they took a chance on him. It was, you might say, how Clyde Mize was made.

“As I advance, I must always have a hand back pulling others along because that’s what these folk did for me,” he said. “If it were not for people at my church, teachers, family, others in my village, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m grateful.”

It’s why Mize keeps a hand reaching back. He wants to do for the village what it has done for him.