Glanton was a prominent Iowa leader and the state’s first black female legislator.
Willie Stevenson Glanton in 1953 was admitted to the Iowa Bar to practice law.
She was an African-American from the South with a law degree from Washington, D.C., who forged a distinguished career and an extensive resume in Democratic politics long before the Civil Rights struggle — the riots, the sit-ins, the marches — reached fever pitch in the mid-1960s.
Think about that timing.
That year, 1953, was a year before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. the Board of Education, striking down public school segregation.
Two years before black teenager Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for offending a white woman in a grocery store.
Two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., sparking widespread bus boycotts.
So Glanton’s death Thursday at age 95 in Des Moines rippled nationwide because she was an early icon and enduring inspiration to successive generations of African-American leaders and civil rights champions.
A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
- 1 of 6
- 2 of 6
- 3 of 6
- 4 of 6
- 5 of 6
- 6 of 6
Michelle Obama campaigned for her husband in 2007 in Glanton’s living room in Des Moines. And Glanton celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2010 with the Obamas at the White House.
Former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver praised Glanton as “a true Iowa pioneer who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, equality and social justice.”
“She paved the way for so many individuals by the life that she led, by the battles that she fought, by the various accomplishments that she enjoyed in her life,” said Glanton’s longtime friend and her legal guardian, Renee Hardman of West Des Moines. “She opened the door for so many.”
Glanton was the first woman to become an assistant Polk County attorney. She was Iowa’s first black female legislator, serving in the state House of Representatives from 1965 to 1967.
She helped guide scores of organizations throughout her lifetime as a board and committee member, from the NAACP to Des Moines University.
Glanton was born in Arkansas, the youngest of three children whose father managed a hotel and bathhouse in Hot Springs. But he also instilled in his daughter a love for activism when she worked alongside him at age 16 in getting voters to the polls.
She earned degrees at Tennessee State University and Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington, D.C. While in the nation’s capital she met Luther T. Glanton Jr., a Tennessean and war veteran with a law degree from Drake University who was headed back to Des Moines.
They married in 1951 and adopted a son, Luther “Gabby” III.
Glanton replaced her husband as assistant county attorney in 1956. Luther Jr. became Iowa’s first black judge in 1958 and commanded his courtroom with a booming voice.
From the start, Glanton’s work reached far beyond Iowa. The Kennedy administration in 1962 sent the Glantons on a four-month tour of Africa and southeast Asia to try to improve U.S.-African relations at the height of the Cold War.
Glanton then was elected to the Legislature in 1964, one of two African-Americans alongside James Jackson from Waterloo.
Yellowed, brittle newspaper clippings in the Register archives seemingly support many of the eulogies that have poured in after Glanton’s death: She wielded a graceful strength.
A short news item from May 1963 notes that Glanton sat alone in her law office at 10:30 at night when a brick was hurled through the window, missing her. A month later she spoke to an audience of “200 white women” at a Farm Bureau conference and warned them that the blatant racial discrimination in the South or in “its more subtle form” in the North accomplishes the same result.
“All the condemnation is not due the South,” she told them. “Bigots speak out while the good people sit by silently, shuddering with disgust and fear.”
Glanton was long retired at the time of her death, which meant her name and clarion voice for justice in recent years were not always on prominent display. But her legacy lives on in those whom she inspired and mentored.
Iowa Rep. Ako Abdul Samad was among those who immediately took to Facebook to post a tribute: “When people attacked me for being a Black Panther,” he wrote, “mom Glanton and her husband Judge Glanton gave me love and support. When I ran for the school board and then for the (Iowa) House of Representatives, she was in my corner even though others tried to destroy me.”
Former state lawmaker Wayne Ford, founder of Des Moines social services agency Urban Dreams, as a young man from Washington, D.C., was intimidated by the Glantons, whom he deemed to be “the most powerful black couple in the state of Iowa.”
He referred to their home on the north side of Des Moines as Iowa’s “black White House.”
The Glantons “gave me an example about what I could be,” Ford said, “or what I could do if I stayed here.”
Glanton’s name on the board of Urban Dreams “not only gave me street cred,” he added. “It gave me cred with the white community.”
The Glantons by the 1970s and ’80s had become fixtures among the Iowa establishment. Luther Jr. in 1976 was appointed as Iowa’s first black district court judge by Republican Gov. Robert Ray.
In 1980 Glanton became Des Moines’ first black city council member, appointed in June to fill an at-large seat in the wake of a councilman’s death. She was sworn in by her husband. She campaigned among six candidates in a special election but was runner-up to George Flagg.
Glanton was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Iowa African-American Hall of Fame in 2007. Luther Jr. died in 1991.
Romonda Belcher first met Glanton in 1995 during a church celebration for her graduation from Drake Law School. The two became friends, and Belcher echoed the couple’s mid-20th century milestone when in 2010 she was appointed as Iowa’s first female African-American judge.
Glanton’s “sacrifice paved the way for me to have the opportunities that I have,” Belcher said of her friend who she affectionately called “Ms. G.”
Glanton was a second mother to Hardman, Belcher and many other Iowans.
I quizzed Hardman on what truly mattered to her late friend, knowing that Glanton’s obituaries would be led by the racial barriers she broke and the civil rights causes she had fought for before they were popular.
“Fairness and justice,” Hardman said, “and that those who don’t have a voice can be heard.”
An Iowa Supreme Court ruling days before Glanton’s death concluded that judges and their courts must work harder to combat all-white juries, to ensure that jury pools include enough minorities to ensure a fair trial.
I imagine that Iowa’s graceful civil rights icon would have smiled at seeing her ideals persevere through the power of the law that she loved.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
Services for Willie Glanton
Willie Stevenson Glanton is survived by a son, Luther Glanton III, of Des Moines; a granddaughter, Angela Glanton of Georgia; niece Syeta Glanton of Georgia; and nephew Bobby Glanton Smith of California.
Her wake will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. July 14 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 4114 Allison Ave., with tributes starting at 5:30.
The memorial service will start at 11 a.m. July 15 at Westminster, followed by burial at McLarens Resthaven Cemetery in West Des Moines.