As a young boy running around the halls of New Hope Baptist Church, Craig Watkins remembers the presence of a man. He was tall, bespectacled, dignified - an unassuming figure admired for his keen intellect and kind heart.
That man was Louis A. Bedford, the city's first black judge.
Watkins grew up, studied hard and soaked in the story of Bedford: In the '50s, he challenged school segregation in Dallas alongside legal legend Thurgood Marshall. And in the '60s, he defended students arrested after sit-ins at Wiley and Bishop colleges.
Watkins said it's a story that animated his dreams and set the trajectory for his career.
"He's an ambassador for all of us," said Watkins, Texas' and Dallas' first black district attorney. "He laid the foundation for us. He made it possible for me to have this job."
Bedford, 83, is the subject of a new book, Quest for Justice: Louis A. Bedford Jr. and the Struggle for Equal Rights in Texas, by SMU historian Darwin Payne.
The behind-the-scenes look at the civil rights movement in Texas is a story familiar to many in the city's black community.
A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and Prairie View A&M, Bedford was forced to go to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1947 for his law degree because Texas colleges didn't offer the program to blacks.
He returned to Dallas after three years and opened a law office on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where he still works three or four hours most days.
Earlier this week, Bedford leaned forward in a tuck-backed leather chair and opened a portal into Dallas' biased courtrooms of the '50s and '60s. He's painfully thin, his eyes are watery, and age has reduced his baritone voice to a whisper.
Bedford remembered the time a jury ruled in his favor in a case involving a company attempting to unfairly foreclose on blacks' homes in West Dallas. The judge called the young lawyer to the bench.
"He told me he had promised he was going to give the other side the victory, and he did," Bedford said. Without a blink, he cited the supporting law in Latin - "non obstante veredicto" - which means, "judgment not withstanding the verdict."
Another time, he said, an opposing lawyer snarled in court that Bedford's client was "a member of the NAACP."
Bedford's smile is backlit by the memory, the arrogance of the statement, and the ignorance of it.
"I guess that was supposed to mean he was a rabble-rouser if he was a member of the NAACP," he said. "He was trying to make sure there was prejudice, so he threw that in. I learned when you try a case, it was almost like you have to try it like you're going to appeal."
He said he was a fresh-faced lawyer working in the shadow of black legends when the movement for civil rights rippled through Dallas.
There was Marshall, the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court; J.L. Turner Jr., whose father began practicing law in Dallas in 1896; and W.J. Durham, a civil rights attorney who worked on Sweatt vs. Painter in 1950, a prelude to the landscape-shifting Brown vs. Board of Education verdict in 1954.
"I wasn't nearly as involved as the big guys. I was more of a gopher," Bedford said in his trademark self-depreciating manner. "We think of Thurgood Marshall the icon, but he was just a regular guy. He liked to joke and have fun, but he was very serious about his commitment to the civil rights issue."
Payne, who worked on the biography of Bedford for nearly two years, said he found his subject to be habitually humble.
"In everything he talked about, he downplayed his role," the author said. "But then you talk to people like Craig Watkins, and you see the impact and influence he had on people's lives."
Watkins is far from alone in gushing reverence for Bedford, who became a Dallas municipal judge in 1966.
Ron Kirk, Dallas' first black mayor and now the U.S. trade representative, described the aging jurist as a "trailblazer and truly a pillar of the Dallas legal community."
"His work as a lawyer, judge and community leader can never be duplicated," he said in a written statement.
Peter Johnson, who was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's point person in Dallas during the 1960s and '70s, said Bedford is miscast as a behind-the-scenes player during the struggle.
He picketed the H.L. Green Department Store's segregated lunch counters in downtown Dallas in 1960, shaped Johnson's campaign against discrimination at Safeway grocery stores and assisted in lawsuits around the state.
"He was all over the state of Texas with other lawyers, fighting for legal and civil rights," said Johnson. "He did this when it was very dangerous and being a lawyer didn't protect you from the KKK and other white racists in this state."
But Johnson said it was Bedford's cool head that often came in handy during the hot-headed '60s.
Once, he advised Johnson to tone down the personal attacks being scrawled on picket signs being carried by college students. The SCLC, he said, was opening itself up to slander and libel suits.
"We had these white kids and black kids and Jewish kids from SMU and Bishop College making these signs, and they were using their imagination and creativity," Johnson remembered, chuckling.
"And I told him, 'You've got to come in here and tell these students they've got to tear up these signs. I've got to maintain my militancy.' "
So, arms crossed and voice even, Bedford walked in and explained the law. The students started over.
It's a lesson Bedford said he learned from his mentor, W.J. Durham, who he said is one of the most brilliant lawyers ever to practice in Texas.
"Durham used to say, 'Don't let 'em gig you,' " he said, a reference to catching frogs with a shiny, bare hook. "It was a real thrill to listen to him try cases, and I learned not to lose your cool, just stick with the law and maintain your sense of courtesy."
As a young attorney, Craig Watkins heard similar guidance - from Bedford.
Long before running for the Dallas DA job, Watkins faced a decision confronted by many black professionals - do you stay in the community, infusing money and hope, or do you work in one of the city's glass-and-granite monuments to materialism, breaking barriers for those behind you?
Watkins sought Bedford's advice.
"You know, it's good for you to build your practice here," he recalled Bedford saying.
"He convinced me I had a responsibility as a lawyer to bring economic development and adequate representation to people down there," Watkins said.
The young lawyer opened an office within walking distance from the retired judge.
"Many times, I'd just walk down there and talk to him about the law and what I needed to do to survive," Watkins said. "I just look up to him as one of the most prominent citizens in Dallas."
Those conversations, he said, with afternoon light muted by blinds and traffic whizzing by on the street, helped prepare him for the controversies to come - in being the first black DA in Texas, and building a reputation as a lawyer who sets innocent men free, rather than sending people to prison with impunity.
"He was always very calm and laid back," Watkins said. "He didn't get too excited. Me, I'd be all wild-eyed and upset about something, but he stayed calm, and I really took that to heart."
So, two years ago when Watkins made history by winning an against-the-odds election, he called on his old mentor to administer the oath of office. The iconic image, of a square-jawed black politician with his right hand raised, is framed on Bedford's wall.
"When he did the ceremony and he got choked up, it surprised me," Watkins said. "And it really brought into focus the responsibility of being the first African-American DA in Texas and the things he had to go through to give me an opportunity to be a lawyer."