Benjamin Gibson, 1st Black judge in US Western District of Michigan, dies at 89

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The first Black judge in the U.S. Western District of Michigan and one of the first federal judges of color, the Honorable Benjamin Gibson, has died. He was 89 years old.

Gibson died on Jan. 13.

His obituary says, “He was a Trailblazer, a Pioneer… a Giant Among Giants!” His resume supports that.

“People have called him the trailblazer and in a lot of respects he really was,” said Michelle VanDyke, president and CEO Heart of West Michigan United Way.

It was right here in West Michigan that Benjamin Gibson blazed much of that trial.

“A remarkable man,” VanDyke added.

According to family, Gibson excelled in school, graduating with honors at the age of 16. Shortly after graduation, he left his Detroit home to join the Army.

When he came back, he found his way into law school and then to the state Capital to become the assistant attorney general. Gibson went on to become the assistant prosecutor for Ingham County — a position that had never before been held by a Black man.

Then in 1979 while living in Grand Rapids, he brought another barrier down when President Jimmy Carter called Gibson to the state Capitol in Lansing and appointed him to serve as the U.S. Federal District Court judge for the Western District of Michigan. He was the first African American to hold the position and went on to be the first Black federal chief judge. But he didn’t end there.

“We were really fortunate to have his leadership and his vision guiding us in our board of directors and that continues on to this day,” VanDyke said.

Gibson served the Grand Rapids community for decades, becoming the first Black board chair at Heart of United Way in 1987 and the first Black professor at Michigan State University Cooley Law School.

“I was talking with someone who worked with him when he was part of our organization and they remember him as being so kind and so willing to jump in and do anything to help us,” VanDyke said.

Like any good pioneer, Gibson made sure to leave a path for others to follow.

“I think what was really important about Judge Gibson is that he motivated so many others as well,” VanDyke said. “I really believe his commitment to this community was unending and it was inspiring.”

In July, the fourth African American will become board chair at the Heart of United Way.

Since his time as a federal judge in our state, Gibson remains the only person of color to hold the position.

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