On November 8th, 2010, I remember waiting for the election results. I wanted to see if Donald Cureton, my fellow Garinger Wildcat was elected as a Mecklenburg County District Court Judge. If elected, he would be the youngest judge in Mecklenburg County. In the courtroom, he would be introduced as “The Honorable Judge Donald Cureton,” but to me he would still be “Donnie”, one of the coolest cats on campus. He was a star high school basketball player and an intellectual giant in the classroom. In high school, Donnie and I didn’t interact very much but I always respected Donnie because he maintained a balance between academics, athletics, and socializing.
After impatiently waiting on the local new stations to provide me with the results, I logged onto the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections’ website. All the results were in and Donald Cureton, a Charlotte native, was now a District Court Judge. I couldn’t believe it! A 32-year-old African-American, from a working-class family background, who ran a grassroots campaign was elected judge. I remember picking up the phone to call a few of my former high school classmates to share the good news.
Now, I get a chance to catch up with Donnie and share his story with our readers. I’m very interested in learning about his post-high school path that led to him to become a District Court Judge. Hopefully, he will have some inspiring words for young people from similar backgrounds who aspire for excellence.
Phillips: When did you know that you wanted to become a lawyer?
Cureton: When I was in the 8th grade, I developed my career plans. Back then, like most of the kids I knew, playing sports was my primary focus. During middle school, basketball was my life and my goal was to play in the NBA. But I knew that I needed to have a backup plan. Going to law school and becoming a lawyer was my ‘Plan B’. So going into high school, I knew that I needed to focus on the basketball court and in the classroom.
Phillips: You received acceptance letters from some prestigious universities. What made you decide to attend Winston Salem State University (WSSU)?
Cureton: During my senior year, I was contacted by several universities, but if I would have accepted their scholarship offers, I would have been forced to play basketball. I wanted an academic scholarship because I knew that if I suffered an injury or the coaches didn’t like me, then I could lose my athletic scholarship.
My top two choices were Morehouse College and Howard University. But Winston Salem State University offered me a full academic scholarship, which meant that I was not forced to play basketball to maintain my scholarship. My decision to attend WSSU saved my parents from the financial burden of paying for my tuition. On top of that, both of my parents are WSSU Alumni. Several of my high school classmates also decided to attend WSSU. My decision to attend WSSU made the most sense and I felt very comfortable with my choice. Looking back on my decision, I have no regrets about becoming a WSSU “Ram”.
Phillips: Many people believed that you were good enough to play college basketball. How tough was your decision to stop playing and focus solely on academics?
Cureton: I was at a crossroads between playing basketball and focusing on my academic studies. I still wanted to play basketball deep down inside, but I knew that I possessed other talents outside of the basketball court. In high school, I was able to balance basketball and my books and I thought I could do the same at WSSU. So I decided to try out for WSSU’s basketball team as a “walk-on”. I made the team but I was a “Redshirt”, which meant that I practiced with the team but I didn’t get to play during regularly scheduled games. Since I was a “Redshirt Walk-on”, I would have to wait until my Sophomore year to play in regular-season games. But I trained with the team just like all of the other players.
After my freshman year, something hit me. I still can’t put a finger on it. I just didn’t want to play basketball anymore. For nearly a year, I didn’t pick up a basketball. On a subconscious level, I knew that I wasn’t giving my all to basketball or my studies. So, I decided to put all of my focus on getting into Law School and becoming a lawyer. Since I wasn’t playing basketball, I had the time to serve as the Secretary of Judicial Affairs. My experience overseeing student conduct hearings provided me with the required experience to get accepted into law school. During my senior year at WSSU, I missed out on winning a CIAA Championship with my former teammates. But if I would have continued to play, I’m not sure that we would be having this conversation right now.
Phillips: Tell me about your law school experience at Howard University.
Cureton: I felt honored to become a member of the Howard Law School family. It’s a special feeling when you are walking on the same campus as Thurgood Marshall [former US Supreme Court Justice] and many of the other attorneys that played an important role in Brown vs. Board of Education [the legal case that ended school segregation in the United States]. Most attorneys will tell you that law school is very competitive, but Howard was the opposite. We had a sense of community and we were trying to help each other to become the very best. Most of us are in different cities now, but we still make time to update each other on our business and personal lives.
Phillips: Did your experience serving as an Assistant Public Defender impact your decision to run for District Court Judge?
Cureton: Absolutely, I feel like I came full circle. Initially, I wanted to become a litigator and fight for people’s rights but I wasn’t sure that I was mature enough to handle the negative aspects of the legal system. It’s unsettling to watch the high percentage of African-American men enter the Criminal Justice System. During law school, I thought I could escape the negative aspects of the legal system by practicing Entertainment law. While in law school, I was an intern at Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Island Def Jam Music but somehow I was pulled back into being a litigator.
After practicing Criminal Law, I learned that I could make a difference and help young people stay out of the Criminal Justice System. As a lawyer, my impact was somewhat limited and that is what caused me to run for District Court Judge. If elected District Court Judge, I felt that I would have the opportunity to use my position as judge to influence young people. I wanted to use the power of the bench to show young people that they have other options besides a life of crime. By being able to better communicate and relate to young people, I felt that I could use my age to my advantage.
Phillips: Tell me about your campaign experience running for District Court Judge.
Cureton: Before I launched my campaign, I sought advice from experienced people in the political world. Even though I’m a Charlotte native, I was told that I didn’t have strong name recognition, I lacked experience, and that I needed to raise more than $20,000. In the nicest way possible, they told me that I couldn’t win. The political experts might have been right, but I was determined to run for District Court Judge. If Thurgood Marshall [former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Howard University Law Graduate] had listened to all his naysayers, who knows when schools would have been desegregated [referring to the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education].
At the time, I didn’t have $20,000 to risk on a campaign, so I decided to develop a game plan to win the District Court Judge race. I decided to use all of my available resources: friends, family, former classmates, colleagues and social media. After I had a game plan together, my basketball instincts kicked in. I wasn’t concerned with winning or losing, just putting forth my best effort. My goal was to share my message with the community and I was hopeful that the public would feel my sincerity. On a shoestring budget, I spent all of my available time at community events, attending various churches, and speaking at neighborhood meetings. We printed very few yard signs and focused our efforts on word-of-mouth advertising.
Phillips: How did it feel when you received the news that you were elected as a District Court Judge?
Cureton: After the polls closed, I asked everyone not to call me. I didn’t want to know the early results. I can remember being really tired. I just wanted to eat and say thank you to my friends and family. So we went to one of my favorite restaurants to have dinner. Right before we placed our order, a friend called and said that I was leading in the early votes. After that call, the entire table asked the waiter to change the TV channel so that we could see the election results. I felt optimistic but I still wasn’t sure about the outcome. After we finished eating, some of my colleagues walked in and confirmed that I won the District Court Judge race. Then everyone at the table started to celebrate.
But it didn’t hit me until the next day. That’s when I knew that my dream was reality. I guess I was holding my emotions inside because I broke down and cried. Now I understand why athletes cry after winning a championship. After so much hard work, I guess crying is the only way to release all of your emotions.
Phillips: From your experience, what advice can you share with our readers?
Cureton: I think that it’s very important to set goals. At the same time, it’s important to be flexible enough to move in different directions. You can’t always be sure of how or when you will arrive at your desired destination. Sometimes you will get on a major highway and other times you will travel on a small country road. Often times, people make the mistake of setting their heart on one goal and shutting down if they don’t get what they want when they want it. Everything doesn’t come on your time. I feel that a higher power was helping me and I know that I wasn’t on my time. That’s why I found myself in certain situations when I least expected it.
Every day that I wake up, I strive to be a better son, a better brother, a better father, a better husband, and a better human being. I believe that when we strive to become better people, we find ourselves in positive situations. Each day, I look for opportunities to move myself forward and to assist others in moving forward.
Phillips: How has your life changed since you became a judge?
Cureton: Soon after I was elected, I noticed that some people treated me differently. Whether I’m in court or out with my family, sometimes I feel like I get special treatment. Also, it took a little while to get used to being called “Your Honor”, but I’m comfortable with that title now. I enjoy the perks of being a judge, but my job is an elected position. My charge is to serve my community by being fair, just, and impartial. I am grateful for this opportunity and my focus is on doing what’s best for the community.
Last but not least, I want everyone to know that I still feel like the same guy that some of you all knew from Garinger High School, Winston Salem State University, or Howard University. I don’t want people to feel that I am unapproachable because of my title. In the courtroom, I am Judge Cureton, but after work, I’m just like every other Mecklenburg County resident.
Phillips: Any closing comments?
Cureton: I want to express my love and gratitude to my wife, my parents, my siblings, friends, family members, and all of my supporters. I am in this position because of my support system. Also, I would like to thank The Paradigm Magazine for covering my story. Hopefully, this interview can inspire other young people to go after their dreams.
Phillips: How can readers contact you?
If your readers want to invite me to speak at their church or community meeting, they can contact me at Mecklenburg County Courthouse 832 East Fourth Street, Suite 9600, Charlotte, NC 28202, (704) 686 –0101. [Note: Judge Cureton is prohibited from discussing current legal cases or providing legal counsel.]