An Interview with U.W. Clemon
Published in 2015 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine
on April 29, 2015
Updated on August 9, 2022
Q: I read an article in the Columbia Law School magazine that said you first knew you wanted to become a civil rights lawyer when you saw police officers threatening a friend of yours.
A: They didn’t just threaten him; they terrorized him. We were 13. My brother and a friend [named Anthony] were walking from Westville, right outside of Birmingham, to the next town, less than two miles away, where my brother and sister lived. [The police] came up and pointed at Anthony and told him, “Nigger, get in the car.” Anthony got in the car and they drove away. When they came back a few minutes later, they pushed him out of the car. It was obvious he had urinated on himself and [they had] put a gun to his head and made him do it. We had a lot of police brutality generally at that time, but what led to the ‘63 demonstrations, among other things, was the pervasive police brutality in Birmingham.
Q: Was your family supportive of you going into law?
A: Well, my father and mother were Mississippi sharecroppers who’d come to Alabama two years before I was born. My father was illiterate; my mother had about a third-grade education. There was nothing aristocratic about our background. We lived in a town that was built by and owned by US Steel. My father had a job at US Steel.
There was one black lawyer in the neighboring city of Fairfield. I met him when I was about 12. Demetrius Newton often represented blacks when they were charged by police for resisting arrest and various things, and he would appear in municipal court on their behalf. I was influenced by Demetrius’ role, and I was influenced by Thurgood Marshall; of course, I was also influenced by Perry Mason. It seemed to me being a lawyer would be the best way I could deal with this kind of problem and make a decent living at the same time.
Q: The state of Alabama wouldn’t allow African-Americans to go to law school in the state but they paid for them to get an education elsewhere. Was that the same situation for you?
A: Yeah. They ended that program my second year of law school. It was an intent to give lip service to “separate but equal.” So if the University of Alabama or Auburn University offered a program or a degree that was not available at the two black state-supported colleges, then the state would pay for the differences to go out of state to any school. They would pay the difference between tuition and room and board had that student been admitted to University of Alabama or Auburn. It had a very clever effect: A lot of lawyers went to school and never came back. I went to Columbia and for a year and a half the state of Alabama paid the difference.
Q: Tell me about your experience at Columbia.
A: I always knew that I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to get a good legal education and Columbia was a natural choice. At the time, Jack Greenberg was head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; there were more Columbia law professors involved in the civil rights movement than any other law school other than Howard. Also in my class was James Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi.
Q: Why did you come back to Alabama?
A: I went to law school with the idea of coming back to Alabama and practicing civil rights law. One of my two advisers at Columbia Law School was Bill Cary, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. For two consecutive Sundays in my last semester, he had my wife and me up to his place in Riverdale to convince me to go with a New York law firm. “Just for two years,” he said. [laughs] But my mind was made up; I had to get back to Alabama.
Fortunately, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had Earl Warren scholarships, which were designed to facilate lawyers, black and white, who wanted to come back South and practice civil rights law. They put me in this program that enabled me to come back with a stipend for three years, and they bought a small library and office furniture, which enabled me to get started running.
Q: How did it affect you when you were a young man taking part in these demonstrations opposing Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor?
A: I was keenly aware of the danger and risk. But for me the possible benefits far outweighed those risks. You have to understand that I saw, in effect, a world change in my first two years of college. We boycotted the stores in 1962, in 1963 we demonstrated, and Congress ultimately enacted the 1964 Civil Right Act. I came out of college in May 1964, and on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act went into effect. We could go into formerly forbidden white restaurants and places of accommodation.
Q: When you started practicing law as a young lawyer in Birmingham, what were some of the challenges?
A: As you probably know, virtually all the civil rights cases were in federal court. When I started practicing law, none of the federal judges on our bench were sensitive to civil rights issues. They were not usually hostile in an overt way, but it was very clear they didn’t like the idea of a local lawyer bringing civil rights cases. The chief judge of the district, Judge Seybourn Lynne—who was a scholarly old gentleman, but of the old school—he knew every lawyer by his first name. We showed up every Friday for the monthly motion docket; the courtroom would be packed. He’d refer to each lawyer by his first name, as each case was called, but when it came to me, I was always Mr. Clemon.
We were very soon acclimated to losing the case in the district court and almost always winning in the 5th Circuit, which at that time was set in the French Quarter of New Orleans. What we did at the district court was simply to make a record.
Q: What prompted you to run for political office?
A: Well, of the times I ran for office, I lost once; that was my first bid in 1973. I ran for the Birmingham City Council. There were three vacancies on the City Council and I came in fourth place. The guy who came in third place died before he could be sworn in. The black community was insisting that I be appointed by the council in his stead; the council refused. Several months later I ran for the Alabama State Senate from a newly created majority black district and I won.
I had occasion to do battle with George Wallace when I was in the state Senate. At that point he was not disposed to appoint blacks to the various state boards and agencies. We had a prison system where about 66 percent of the prison population was black, and there had never been a black on the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Another black senator, Richmond Pearson, and I tried to do something about it; we tried to talk to our fellow senators. When Governor Wallace sent up a name to fill that post, the Senate voted him down and finally persuaded him to send up the name of a black legislator, Reverend John Porter. John became the first black member of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Also from their inception up until the time we came to the Senate, the two black institutions of higher learning in the state did not have separate boards of trustees; they were always administered by the State Board of Education. The black legislators in 1976 sponsored a bill that created separate boards of trustees for Alabama State and Alabama A&M. Governor Wallace decided he would make them majority white boards. I was chairman of the rules committee in the Senate, which was in charge of confirmations, and I refused to bring up the name of the fifth white for each of those boards and held out until the governor withdrew the white name and sent up a black name. We had those kinds of battles all the time.
Q: Do you think you were able implement more changes as a politician or as a civil rights lawyer?
A: The changes we were able to achieve through the courts were more lasting than the changes that came through the political process: the school desegregation cases, the employment litigation. One of the cases I was involved in was litigation against US Steel Corp. As a result of that, the nine largest steel companies in the nation adopted plans of operation that gave opportunities to blacks and minorities to enjoy the same jobs and pay as whites.
Q: At what point in your career did you realize that you could become a federal judge?
A: About a year and a half before I became a federal judge. The thought never occurred to me in most of the years I was practicing civil rights law. They say all it takes to become a federal judge is two senators and to be a member of the same party as the president. One of my best friends in the state Senate [Donald Stewart] had gone on to become U.S. senator. Before that, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Howell Heflin, had been elected [a U.S. senator]. Here I was with two friends who were U.S. senators and Jimmy Carter was president.
I always knew that federal judges were essential in the implementation of civil rights legislation and in the fair treatment under the nation’s equality laws. I took a 50 percent decrease in salary, but I thought it was well worth it.
Q: When you look back at your tenure as a federal judge, what are you most proud of?
A: Nationally, it would be the Lilly Ledbetter case. Although she lost in the judicial branch of government, ultimately she won in the legislative branch.
Locally, it would be the adoption of a jury plan for the Northern District of Alabama that gave an opportunity for blacks to serve meaningfully on juries in the district. Up to the point that I became chief judge in 1999, the Northern District jurors were drawn from throughout the 31 northernmost counties and seven divisions that comprised the districts. Blacks were concentrated in two of the seven divisions, the Birmingham division and the Tuscaloosa division. The effect of drawing jurors from throughout the district was blacks were almost never eligible to serve, because the few who ended up on a panel were usually stricken. Their strength was diluted by drawing a jury from throughout the district. I think at that time we were the only district in the country that handled it that way.
Q: How had the courts in Alabama changed by the time you became a judge in 1980?
A: In terms of obvious and open and notorious [discrimination], I didn’t see much of it. Aside from some challenges that I encountered as chief judge that I’m sure no other chief judge had dealt with, I did not observe any overt hostility to civil rights enforcement. Up to the time that I became the chief judge, the chief judge of the court and clerk of the court generally handled the personnel decisions for the court. When I became chief judge and I started giving equal opportunities for employment to qualified black candidates, a majority of the other judges called my hand on it, and we went to a system where the clerk of the court now basically decides.
Q: Today do you feel like we’re out of the woods as far as civil rights?
A: Oh no. In very significant respects, we are deeper into the woods than we’ve ever been. The U.S. Supreme Court in my judgment is more conservative now than it has been since the Roger Taney court, the Dred Scott case in 1857. I think a majority of the justices—one whose skin color is like mine leading the fray—look for ways to overturn precedents set by the Warren court.
Up to this point, it has pretty well succeeded. Section 1983 and the 14th Amendment have been, in my view, turned on their heads, so that they are now used to prevent blacks and minorities from enjoying the fruits of American citizenship. There are always exceptions, but if these justices were on the court in 1968, I would’ve found something else to do.
In terms of being out of the woods we’re not anywhere near it, and the election of Barack Obama has had an adverse effect I think.
Q: Do you feel like the fact that Barack Obama has helped swing the pendulum more aggressively conservative?
A: I think it is the most important consideration that has led to where we are. I have some profound disagreements with some of the things that President Obama has done or not done. But when you consider that he brought us out of the second Great Depression, not in five or six years but in four; and his stimulus efforts revived the economy; and Wall Street is at its record high from the depths [it was] at the time when Barack Obama became president. Now in the ordinary American experience, that would lead to his being elected to a third term. But instead he is, among many, reviled.
I think a part of it is that many Americans find it difficult to accept the reality of a black man being in the White House. It’s a sad commentary and at age 72, I’m troubled to say it, but I can’t just look the other way and pretend that it’s not happening. I think that in 2016, when Mr. Obama is no longer president, race relations are going to improve.
Q: With regard to African-Americans in the law in Alabama, how much work still needs to be done?
A: We’re not in an environment of pure fairness, but we are definitely much improved. There are blacks at the major law firms, black partners; there are companies, clients, who don’t take offense at having their case handled by black lawyers. I think we’ve come a rather remarkable way here in Alabama in terms of affording meaningful job opportunities for black lawyers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.