Every day Larry Mungin traveled back and forth
between his familys apartment in the Woodside Housing projects and Bryant High
School in Long Island City.
By 1975, his work ethic and his intensity led him to win the national
debate competition and be elected senior class president. While Northern Boulevard may
have been in his immediate line of sight, he was all the time looking beyond the horizon
to the Ivy League, a successful career, and a life outside of the projects.
Paul Barrett, the author (right), and Larry Mungin, the subject
(left) were roommates at Harvard.
Larrys mother Helen, a proud
women who raised three children alone after her husband walked out, taught her three
children race was not an issue or an obstacle to success and acceptance in America. So
Mungin never stopped working hard, and after attending Harvard, serving in the Navy, and
graduating from Harvard Law School, he was ready to earn a comfortable living at a
corporate law firm.
Mungin had made it. He was living the
American dream and he wasnt looking back. Little did he know that only a few years
later he would become embroiled in a civil rights lawsuit, and his crusade would become
the subject of a book.
The recently published The Good
Black: A True Story of Race in America, written by Wall Street Journal Deputy Legal
Editor Paul Barrett, uses Mungins story to describe the experiences of many black
professionals who are not barred at the door because of their credentials, but cannot rise
to the top because of the color of their skin.
Mungin says he never wanted nor could he
have imagined becoming the subject of such a work, but that the circumstances unwittingly
thrust him into the fray.
Six years out of law school, Mungin joined
the Washington office of the Chicago based firm Katen, Muchin and Zavis, and was earning
$100,000 a year. He was told that with hard work, he would have a shot at becoming a
A book which tells of Larry Mungins legal battle was
recently published by Dutton.
Slowly it became clear he had joined
the wrong firm. He was getting little contact with clients, doing work normally relegated
for less experienced lawyers, and having difficulty getting any kind of work evaluation
for his prospects at becoming partner. As the only African American in the 50 lawyer
Washington office, he could not help but think race had something to do with his troubles.
In 1994 when Mungin filed suit against the
firm on a number of grievances including race discrimination, it caught the attention of
the corporate legal world and came as a shock to everyone who knew him. After all, this
"hard working guy" had never once "cried racism."
"I just couldnt believe it. I
had typecast Larry as the guy who would never get wrapped up in a racial conflict,"
said Barrett, who before writing the book was Mungins roommate at Harvard. "He
was on a very material corporate law career track and when he filed this suit he
challenged all that. It wasnt until he filed the suit that I thought race could have
been the cause of his unhappiness."
Barrett said that while he never thought
the case would go to trial, he decided in the unlikely event it did, and that Mungin won,
he would write his friends story.
Mungins claim was confirmed by
a mostly black jury in Washington D.C. when he was awarded $2.5 million in compensation
and punitive damages, but the decision was later reversed on appeal by a three judge panel
and Mungin never collected a dime of the money.
The book does not simply recount the trial,
it describes Mungins life growing up, his relationship with his family, and his
struggle to leave and still maintain a connection to the Woodside Housing projects.
Mungin spent his formative years in the Woodside Housing
Project. His older sister and her family still have an apartment in the building adjacent
to where they grew up.
Tribune Photo By Bryan
Larry or "Dwayne" as his
family referred to him, was born in 1957, the middle of three children spent the first
nine years of his life in Bedford Stuyvesant. In 1966, when his mother got a job as a
secretary with the New York City Housing Authority, one of the perks was a modest
apartment in their Woodside Housing Development.
"When I grew up there, Queens was very
different than it is today," said Mungin, who usually stays with his brother Kenneth
in Elmhurst when returning for visits. "It was still considered mostly suburban. Now
there are more gangs in the projects. But Im living proof that you can make
Barrett says like all people, Mungin has
some interesting contradictions. On the one hand, he was moving away from Queens what it
represented to him, and on the other hand he remained an affectionate brother and uncle,
identifying himself as a "Queens boy."
"I think after the legal fight and
having to defend his first 35 years of life in court, he really reconsidered his
identity," said Barrett. "While he had moved around geographically and been
pretty much a loner, he discovered aspects of home and family he never knew he had, both
with his fathers relatives in the Sea Islands and back in Queens."
Debra Tharington, Larrys older sister
who still lives in the same housing project with her husband Ron, said that while she
thought for the most part the book was accurate, some things were misrepresented and
others were just plain hard to read in print.
"The stuff about my mother was hard
because no one really knew she drank, and many people she knew still live in the
neighborhood," Tharington said. "I dont think she was clinically
depressed, she had her good days and bad, but she always fixed dinner and always went to
"Like Hillary Clinton says, it takes a
village to raise a child, and parents here really help each other... Larry may have helped
out, but we paid our own bills, we sent our kids to basketball camp," Tharington
Mungin may have felt like a
"token" at the all white law office doing work below his experience, but he was
still making a six figure salary. When he decided to sue he effectively ended his career
in the corporate world, and now with little money saved from his lucrative years and a
considerably smaller income from his private work in Alexandria, Virginia, many wonder if
the whole crusade was really worth it.
"I did what I thought I had to
do," Mungin said. "It was not just about money. It was not just about race. It
was a human rights case."
"If he had a wife and children it
would have been different," Tharington said. "But this only affected him and he
was prepared to make a lifestyle change to stand up for what he believed in."
And so "Uncle Dwaynes"
lifestyle has changed. He no longer vacations in Europe or works for a high powered law
firm. He maintains close ties with his fathers relatives in the predominantly black
sea-islands of South Carolina, where he hopes to make his home.
Mungin tried to live a life where race was
not an issue, but after suing his law firm and being the subject of a book his name will
always be linked with race. His mothers philosophy of integration through
achievement has been tested, but to what extent has this experience changed his perception
of race relations?
"I would certainly avoid being the only black in the
office, but my feelings have not changed. People are people," he said. "My
mother was half-white; both my brother and sister are in mixed marriages. Integration is
part of my life."