HIGH PROFILE: Entrepreneur, lawyer, businessman, civil-rights pioneer and politician Richard Mays

Entrepreneur, lawyer, businessman, civil-rights pioneer and politician are just part of Richard Mays’ resume.

Richard Mays isn't dressed like your typical high-powered lawyer this particular morning. In a tropical-print shirt, dark jeans and cognac-colored cowboy boots, he looks like he just came in from a vacation -- or maybe, an executive seminar.

To be sure, he has a distinguished air about him. He exudes the quiet confidence of a man who over his lifetime has made decisions that have placed him among the more prominent members of his profession.


Actually Mays, who will turn 75 on Aug. 5, has worn many hats in said lifetime: Trailblazer for black Arkansans. Civil rights advocate. State legislator. State Supreme Court justice. Longtime supporter of both Democrat and Republican political candidates. Entrepreneur.

It's about entrepreneurship that he has much to say. His business ventures began with fast-food restaurants and, in more recent years, almost included a New York gambling operation.

"If you recognize the value of the capitalistic system, you've got to understand that it rewards those who take a risk," he says. "The opportunity in this country is there for you. You've got to get in the game, though. ... There is no way that you can be a winner on the sidelines."

The wisdom Mays has accumulated during his years in law and business is something he doesn't keep to himself, Wilbur Peer, a friend and business partner, points out.

"Richard is one that does not mind sharing his experience with other people where it can add value to their life," he says. "Influence shared is influence expanded. He views helping others as helping to strengthen the person that he is."

"The person he is" goes back to the child Mays once was -- a child in whose mind law and business were intermingled.

He grew up in Little Rock; reared with his older brother by their parents, Dorothy and Barnett G. Mays.

While a third-grader in Tuscon, Ariz. -- where he spent the school year while his mother was being treated for tuberculosis -- "I can recall deciding that I wanted to be a lawyer." Mays' father was self-employed; he assumed lawyers were, also. Mays isn't sure when or how he first became familiar with the profession. "I just know once I made that decision, I never changed my mind."

In what was then Horace Mann High School, Mays excelled as a member of the Honor Society, president of the student council and a member of the Drama Club. He also played clarinet in the band. He graduated in 1961 and headed off to Howard University in Washington, where he received a Phi Beta Kappa award for having the highest academic average in his freshman class. He also served on the debate team and pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

After graduation from Howard, Mays returned to the Natural State and went on to become the only black member of his law-school class at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Aside from an encounter with a landlord who feared repercussions if he provided Mays with student housing, and the arousal of some initial concern when he signed up to work at football games, Mays' race did not hinder his matriculation.

"By and large, my experience in law school was a very positive experience," Mays says. "In fact, one of the professors told me ... that he hoped I could appreciate that the challenges in the marketplace were going to be much more difficult than they were in law school, because I was dealing with the higher end of the food chain -- and once I got out in the marketplace [I shouldn't] expect to be treated ... with the same warmth and generosity. I'm grateful he gave me his perspective."

Mays finished law school in 1968. His first year out, he went to work for the U.S. Justice Department in the organized crimes section. He enjoyed the experience, but didn't stay long. "I wanted to be more active in the community," he says.

He returned to Little Rock, where he became deputy prosecutor for the Sixth Judicial District. He wasn't the first black person to hold the position, but he was the first to hold it full time.

Mays' foray into entrepreneurship began in the early 1970s when he went in with Mike Long, manager of the Minute Man restaurant at Fourth and Locust streets in North Little Rock, to buy the business. This was thought to be the first interracial business partnership in the state -- one that got the men featured in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Subsequently the partners expanded to a Minute Man franchise at Roosevelt Road and Center Street in Little Rock.

The restaurants, part of a chain started by Little Rock native Wesley T. Hall, did well -- for a time. "I think Wendy's hurt Minute Man," Mays says. "Wendy's started giving you a real hamburger at a very short window. We gave you a quality hamburger, but the window was much longer." The restaurants were eventually closed.


Meanwhile, Mays continued to practice law. He served as an NAACP Legal Defense Fund fellow through noted civil-rights lawyer John Walker, whose firm he joined. "We were very active in the area of civil rights, under Walker, Kaplan and Mays, for many years. We were probably the first [racially] integrated law firm."

Former partner Philip Kaplan notes Mays' shrewdness.

"I don't know if there's a better negotiator. He can zero in on any essence of any argument or discussion and has a great perspective on all kinds of problems," Kaplan says. "He just has a wonderful sense of being able to cut to the chase."

One of Mays' first notable cases was a federal lawsuit brought against the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, a case presided over by Judge Oren Harris. The case helped define the 1964 Civil Rights bill, Mays says.

Mays represented the hotel's black workers. "You had the porters and the waiters. And all the blacks were porters and the whites were waiters." The waiters were paid more.

Harris, who'd been a congressman in Washington, told Mays he'd presented a good case, but -- Mays quotes the judge -- 'we just don't have the qualified blacks in Arkansas like we do up in Washington.'

"And I thought that the skills required were not more than a high-school education at best." After Harris ruled against the black workers, the case went to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision. "I look at that case as the beginning of the process of establishing what the 1964 Civil Rights law meant in the Eighth Circuit," Mays says.

Then there was the class-action suit he brought against the Little Rock Police Department for unconstitutional practices.

"At that time, the Little Rock Police Department had separate facilities for holding blacks and whites -- the jail was segregated," Mays says. "They had a practice of detaining suspects on what they called 'S' -- suspicion. And what they did when they charged you with 'S,' you couldn't bail out, you couldn't have a bond."

When Mays went over to the jail to talk to one of his clients, who was being held on suspicion, he asked what the client's bail was and was told no bail had been set. "I said, 'Look you can't hold a person without charging him, without at least indicating a bail, unless it's a capital offense.'" The reply: "'Well we do.'"

Mays called former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who was prosecuting attorney at the time. Tucker informed the department that holding the man without bail was illegal. "Which I thought was courageous on the part of Tucker, because he was undercutting a pattern and practice that was fairly well established at the Little Rock Police Department," Mays says. His client was released.

He adds that the judge in the case, G. Thomas Eisele, took more than a decade to rule in the plaintiff's favor in the case. "Most of those practices changed while Eisele had the case under advisement."

Tucker and Mays already had history; the two met when they were in law school. Tucker mentions their drives together to Little Rock and back. "As I recall, I had a [Triumph] TR-3 at the time" which, he recalls with humor, caught fire under the dashboard during one of those trips. He credits Mays for helping him to run his political campaigns. "He's always been a great supporter but, we also became very, very good friends."

Current law-firm partner Arkie Byrd lauds Mays for his support on issues she has worked on, as well as his courtroom skills.

"He's got a very agile and very perceptive mind and outlook," she says. "[He's] very analytical in his thinking processes, especially as an attorney."

Walker, Kaplan and Mays lasted until about 1978, Mays remembers. The men went their separate ways; Mays teamed with lawyer Zimmery Crutcher to start the Mays & Crutcher firm. That was one of several firms that went in together in 1984 to buy a building at 415 Main St. in Little Rock. Mays went on to start his current firm, Mays Byrd & Associates, and become sole owner of the building, which he sold to the Little Rock Technology Park in late 2015.


Mays' string of past racial-pioneering roles includes his election to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1972, an election that came about through the creation of some majority-black districts in the state. He shows a photo of himself, taken during his first year in the Legislature, sporting a large afro hairstyle. "I was like Samson; I felt like my strength was in my hair."

Mays was one of four black men who entered a Legislature that had not seen a black member since the late 19th century. The others were Dr. William Townsend and Henry Wilkins III, also elected to the House, and Dr. Jerry Jewell, elected to the Senate.

As a legislator, Mays created a bit of controversy with his introduction of a noncontroversial bill.

He first approached the speaker of the House about the bill that would require common insurance carriers to carry uninsured motorists coverage. If a bill was deemed noncontroversial, it could be presented, without a requirement to get it on the calendar, in the morning during "noncontroversial hour."

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