The mysterious Milton L. McGhee

Bites makes mistakes. After all, Bites is only human. Sort of.

A couple of columns back, Bites mistakenly said county supervisor candidate, former California secretary of health and human services and all-around good guy Grantland Johnson was the first African-American city council person in Sacramento.

Absolutely wrong, as several readers were quick to point out. In fact, the first black council member was Milton Lorenzo McGhee, elected in 1967. The reasons why this mistake got past SN&R’s fleet of fact checkers and research librarians are several, and complicated. But the important thing is to learn from Bites’ mistakes. Who is this geezer McGhee? And why didn’t he get his pioneering name carved on something like Belle Cooledge, a library or a boulevard?

McGhee was raised in Atlanta and took a law degree at Howard University. During the Eisenhower years, McGhee served as a law clerk in the office of U.S. Attorney General William Rogers. He moved to Sacramento in 1959, was admitted to the California State Bar in 1961 and soon became a successful lawyer. He was named the Junior Chamber of Commerce Young Man of the Year, and served as president of the Sacramento chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

McGhee parlayed all of this into a successful city council run in 1967. In 1971, he ran for mayor, losing to Richard Marriott by just 800 votes. But his political career was short-lived. That year, charter reform came to City Hall, along with district elections and a wave of political newcomers—including council members Phil Isenberg and Anne Rudin.

McGhee went back to his promising law career. At the end of 1978, McGhee was nominated by then Gov. Jerry Brown to serve on the 3rd District Court of Appeals. McGhee would have been the first black jurist to serve on that body.

But a newspaper article from December 1978 announcing McGhee’s nomination foreshadowed the trouble that was to come. “The Sacramento Union has learned McGhee has been named in at least two malpractice suits, which may cause problems at a confirmation hearing.”

There wasn’t any hearing. In February of 1979, just two months after pushing McGhee forward, Brown withdrew his nomination, amid reports that McGhee had written more than a dozen bad checks to cover court filing fees. And those malpractice suits were becoming a real problem. Brown said that he withdrew the nomination at McGhee’s request, adding, “I believe he’s an excellent human being, and an excellent lawyer.”

By May of 1979, the Sacramento district attorney was investigating real-estate deals that McGhee had been involved in. He was accused of bilking a local doctor for $250,000 and, incredibly, a Superior Court judge, for more than $100,000. Worse, the California State Bar began its own investigation into accusations that he ripped off a client who had been paralyzed in a drag-racing accident. In 1983, he was convicted of grand theft, disbarred and sentenced to five years in prison. After that, McGhee pretty much disappeared from the public record, with one sad postscript:

According to a 1992 article by Sacramento Bee reporter (and later curmudgeonly columnist) Marcos Breton, McGhee was arrested for stealing a corporate check from a San Diego hospital. According to the story, McGhee made the check out for $53,000 and then attempted to cash it.

All of which explains why grade-schoolers today don’t write reports about Milton McGhee or hang out at the Milton McGhee Library. It’s a shame, really, that the man’s accomplishments were so thoroughly obscured by his mistakes.

But what ultimately happened to Milton Lorenzo McGhee? Is he alive? If so, he’d be about 77 now. Someone out there knows. Did he redeem himself, or just get himself into more trouble? Or was he just forgotten?