Dickerson would often take cases involving the rights of women and people of color, especially in the workplace. She took on these cases pro-bono and even found time to mentor other minority attorneys.
Born on October 12, 1921, in Montgomery County, Alabama, Dickerson graduated from Fisk University in 1935 and got married to Henry Dickerson in 1938. The couple had triplets Alfred, John, and Chris together, but the marriage collapsed in 1939.
In 1945 Dickerson graduated from Howard University and in the following year, she became the first Black woman lawyer to be admitted to the Alabama state bar. As an attorney, she practiced law in Montgomery and Tuskegee.
Reportedly, during her first court appearance, an armed sheriff who did not believe she was a lawyer ordered her to the back of the segregated courtroom until the judge and other lawyers intervened.
In her memoir, she noted that “the bruises inflicted by the segregated pattern of our society remain, and will perhaps remain forever. Perhaps I should go further than calling them bruises and call them scars.”
She moved to Indiana in 1951 and became the second Black woman admitted to the Indiana state bar.
However, her experience at Indiana was not a very good one as she recalls having a medical emergency, yet a segregated Indianapolis hospital refused to admit her. Also, a number of restaurants and hotels denied her service. Years later in her autobiography, Dickerson said she could not forget “the humiliation my clients and I, and my race, in general, suffered” in Indiana.
Again at age 45, she moved to Alaska where she filed for a 160-acre homestead near Wasilla and the Anchorage land office initially refused to allow her to file for a homestead, and realtors rebuffed her inquiries for office space.
“Being black and female, I had some difficulties,” said Dickerson in her memoir. “They’d see my blackface, and suddenly the property I was inquiring about would mysteriously have just been rented.”
Housing discrimination was pervasive in Anchorage. Racially restrictive covenants were common in deeds, and the Anchorage Times ran “whites only” classifieds through the mid-1960s.
She later received the patent on the property and opened an office in Fairview on 15th Avenue, becoming the first Black attorney in Alaska.
Dickerson would later become the first to prosecute the first equal pay cases on behalf of college women professors.
During the 1970s, she won ground-breaking cases against the State of Alaska and the University of Alaska for sexual discrimination. She won a major ‘equal pay case’ for female magistrates and professors, who received less pay than their male counterparts.
In May 1982, Rosa Parks visited Alaska for the first time “at the request of a childhood friend, attorney Mahala Ashley Dickerson,” Anchorage Daily News reported.
Her work and contributions to the law, civil rights, and human rights did not go unnoticed. Dickerson won various awards. She was honored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for her civil rights work in 1983.
She became the first African American to serve as the President of the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1983. The University of Alaska awarded her with an honorary Doctor of Law degree in 1984.
The American Bar Association named Dickerson a Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement honoree in 1995 and she published her memoir, Delayed Justice for Sale, in 1998.
“In my life, I didn’t have but two things to do. Those were to stay black and to die. I’m just not afraid to fight somebody big… Whenever there’s somebody being mistreated, if they want me, I’ll help them,” she told the Anchorage Daily News.
Dickerson practiced law until she was 91 years old. She passed away at the age of 95 in Wasilla, Alaska in 2007. Her papers are housed at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.