Mahala Ashley Dickerson (1912-2007) was the first black female attorney admitted to the Alabama and Alaska bar associations. During her long legal career, she was known as an advocate for the rights of the poor and underprivileged, women, and minorities.
Mahala Ashley was born on October 12, 1912, in Montgomery County, just outside the city of Montgomery, to John Augustine Ashley, the owner of a general store, and Hattie Moss Ashley. She had two sisters, Erna and Harriet. Always a talented student, she attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, where she developed what would be a lifelong friendship with Rosa Parks. She graduated cum laude from Fisk University in Nashville in 1935 with a degree in sociology. Three years later, she married Henry Dickerson, with whom she had triplet sons; Alfred, John, and Chris, who became a world-renowned body builder. The marriage, however, lasted less than a year. In 1948, Dickerson received her law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., again graduating cum laude. She was admitted to the Alabama bar in June 1948 and established law offices in Montgomery and Tuskegee.
In May 1951, Dickerson married Frank Beckwith, an attorney and politician from Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her three boys moved there, and she became the second African American woman admitted to the Indiana bar. This marriage also ended in divorce. In 1958, after vacationing in Alaska, Dickerson moved there, becoming the first African American admitted to the Alaska bar. She was also one of the few female attorneys practicing in Alaska. In all three states, Dickerson was known for her advocacy for the poor and the underprivileged, whether black or white. She accepted many cases for which she received no compensation and served as a mentor to young minority attorneys. She was also an advocate for workers' rights. One of her most prominent labor cases was an equal-pay suit on behalf of a female professor at the University of Alaska, who received a salary lower than her male counterparts. Although she lost the case, it was later reversed on appeal. Even as she fought for the rights of others, Dickerson herself faced gender and racial discrimination from members of the legal establishment and the various bar associations. For example, she had difficulty in finding the five sponsors needed for joining the Alabama Bar. For many years, the American Bar Association did not accept black members on the national level. Dickerson was not invited to join until she was admitted to the Alaska Bar Association.
In 1983 Dickerson became the first African American president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. The following year, the University of Alaska Anchorage presented her with an honorary doctor of law for her advocacy of minority rights in Alaska and throughout the United States. In 1995 the National Bar Association honored Dickerson by presenting her with the Margaret Brent Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of women lawyers who have excelled in their field and have paved the way to success for other women lawyers. Previous recipients include Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O. Connor as well as Anita Hill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although she resided in Alaska, Dickerson attended several meetings of the Alabama Bar Association. In 2006 she was awarded the Alabama State Bar's Maud McLure Kelly Award, presented annually to an outstanding female attorney.
In 1998, Dickerson published an autobiography, Delayed Justice for Sale, in which she details not only her life but also her views on the ill-treatment of the poor and underprivileged in the United
States. She chose the title to reflect her hope that people who have suffered injustice live long enough to see those injustices
corrected. Dickerson practiced law until her death on February 19, 2007, in Wasilla, Alaska, and was buried on her property.
Dickerson, M. Ashley. Delayed Justice for Sale. Anchorage: Al-Acres, 1998.
Alabama State University
Published January 29, 2008
Last updated May 23, 2011