Former Wayne County judge, activist Del Rio dies at 94

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
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James Del Rio can be seen in the iconic 1963 photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching down Woodward as part of a protest demanding fair housing, jobs and an end to racial discrimination against in the city.

Del Rio, who helped organize the march and speech by King on June 23, 1963, at Cobo Hall and went on to become a judge, died of a stroke in San Diego, where he was in hospice care. He was 94.

Del Rio was among the organizers who invited King to Detroit amid strident resistance from some in the city’s African-American community.

“He wanted to make sure everyone had a fair deal,” Eddie Burston, a close friend who considered himself an “adopted son” of Del Rio’s, said Thursday.

Burston, who lives in La Jolla, said he met Del Rio in 1970 when, as a state lawmaker, Del Rio had come to Wayne State University to press school president George Gullen to fund a black history curriculum.

Burston said Del Rio threatened to pull state funding from WSU if Gullen did not institute black history classes into the school’s curriculum.

“He was always everybody’s fighter,” said Burston. “People used to say, ‘When you see him, run.’”

Del Rio was abandoned as an infant, left in a “garbage-littered slum alley” in Detroit in January 1924, according to a blog on Del Rio’s life. He was adopted by a mixed-race couple.

Del Rio attended the University of Michigan and the Detroit College of Law. A former real estate broker and state representative from 1965-72, Del Rio was elected to the Recorder’s Court, the forerunner of Wayne County Circuit Court, in November 1972. He was viewed as hard-nosed by some and controversial by others.

Following a year-long investigation in 1976, Del Rio was disciplined by the Michigan State Supreme Court on 23 counts of alleged judicial misconduct for allegedly badgering defense and prosecutors, coercing criminal defendants into guilty pleas and abusing court employees. He was eventually removed from the bench.

“He had a good side and a bad side,” said Burston. “I learned from both his good side and his bad side.”

Del Rio moved to La Jolla, California, in the mid-1980s, said Burston.

Del Rio was last in Detroit in 2015 when he attended the Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner hosted by the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

Burston said Del Rio is survived by six children and grandchildren.

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