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‘We’ve Come a Rather Remarkable Way’

An oral history of civil rights and the African-American bar 60 years after Montgomery

Photo by Stan Kaady

Published in 2015 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on April 29, 2015


   It’s impossible to talk about civil rights history without Alabama.

Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white commuter, leading to a yearlong boycott of Montgomery’s buses, and the rise to national prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, clashes between nonviolent protesters and Birmingham police with dogs and fire hoses made worldwide news, ultimately leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago in 1965, Selma became a focal point of the struggle for the right to vote; and five months after the “Bloody Sunday” violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge shocked the nation, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

These are the best-known incidents, but there were hundreds more—frequently in the courtroom—including Thurgood Marshall and Birmingham attorney Arthur Shores’ case that made Autherine Lucy the first African-American to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1956. (She was met with hostility and suspended after three days when the university claimed it couldn’t guarantee her safety. When she sued to overturn her suspension, she was permanently expelled.)

To remember these events, we’ve interviewed 11 African-American attorneys who graduated from law school in six different decades. The older ones demonstrated in Birmingham and fought to integrate Montgomery’s buses. The younger ones are the beneficiaries of those gains, graduating from state law schools and working for large firms with levels of minority representation difficult to imagine in the ’50s and ’60s.

“We are not in an environment of pure fairness, but we are definitely much improved,” says retired judge U.W. Clemon, who filed key civil rights lawsuits early in his career, including one against Bear Bryant in 1969 to desegregate the University of Alabama football team. “We’ve come a rather remarkable way here in Alabama, in terms of affording meaningful job opportunities for black lawyers.”

In the 1950s, widespread segregation, discrimination and lack of opportunities were everyday realities for African-Americans in Alabama.

   FRED D. GRAY, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 1954; Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson; Tuskegee and Montgomery: My mother told me I used to baptize cats and dogs and anything else I could get my fingers on. At that time in Alabama, the two professions that black boys usually could think about that were very respectable were to be a preacher or a teacher or both.

   U.W. CLEMON, Columbia University Law School, 1968; White Arnold & Dowd; Birmingham: 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 one black lawyer in the neighboring city of Fairfield. Demetrius Newton often represented blacks charged by police for resisting arrest and various things, and he would appear in municipal court on their behalf.

   Gray (’54): Everything in Montgomery at that time was completely segregated. And if a person of color had a cause of action against a white person, it was very little likelihood he would receive justice.

   JUDGE HELEN SHORES LEE, Cumberland School of Law, 1987; 10th Judicial Circuit, Jefferson County; Birmingham: I went to the courts when my father [Arthur Shores] was trying the Autherine Lucy case. I heard how the lawyers and judge talked to him, and I wanted to stand up and shout, “You can’t talk to my father like that!” But I saw my dad look over his shoulders as if to say, “Don’t you dare say anything.” He was always very calm and mild-mannered.

   CLEMON (’68): 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. [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. What led to the ’63 demonstrations, among other things, was the pervasive police brutality in Birmingham.

Under segregation, African-Americans who qualified for law school could enroll—as long as they left the state.

   J. MASON DAVIS, SUNY Buffalo Law School, 1959, Sirote & Permutt; Birmingham: I applied in 1956, and the State Board of Education paid me the difference of the cost of attending the University of Alabama and the cost of attending the State University of New York—plus my room and board and a one-way train ticket to Buffalo and round-trip ticket back to Birmingham. They were paying out stipends so people would not file litigation against the University of Alabama. They paid to get rid of us. The only problem was that [many who] went North to law school came back.

   CLEMON (’68): I went to Columbia, and for a year and a half, the state of Alabama paid the difference.

   GRAY (’54): I attended Alabama State College for Negroes; it’s [now] Alabama State University. I lived on the west side of Montgomery; State is on the east side. I had to use the public transportation system. I saw many of our people who were mistreated on the buses. I concluded people [should] have their souls saved, but they also should enjoy all of the rights and privileges provided in the Constitution.

I made a secret that I kept for 40 years: I was going to finish college, finish law school, return to Alabama, take the bar exam, pass the bar exam and destroy everything segregated that I could find.

In December 1955, Rosa Parks’ stand in Montgomery and the subsequent bus boycott made national news. Civil rights leader and attorney Fred D. Gray was at the forefront.

   GRAY (’54): I met Mrs. Rosa Parks who lived about two blocks from the church I attended. At the time I opened my office, Mrs. Parks and I established a closer relationship because she worked in a department store a block and a half from my office. She’d come to my office every day, five days a week. We would talk about youth, talk about segregation, we’d talk about the buses, talk about what [African-Americans] would do if they were requested to give up their seats. She was an active person involved in civil rights activities.

We had those conferences and were having them at the time that Claudette Colvin was arrested under similar circumstances to Mrs. Parks, but she did it nine months before. My first civil rights case was not Dr. King, not Rosa Parks, but Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was arrested on March 2, 1955. I represented her in juvenile court. They found her guilty of being a delinquent and placed her on unsupervised probation.

That opportunity [with Rosa Parks] presented itself December 1, 1955. She was arrested on Thursday, trial was on Monday, and she told me she wanted me to represent her. [Fellow civil rights activist] Jo Ann Robinson and I decided that the African-American community not only needed to defend Mrs. Parks, but we needed to solve the problems of buses in general.

Dr. King did not come here to lead the civil rights movement; he was just out of school, just got married and came here. This was his first pastorage. He was destined to be the spokesman by Jo Ann Robinson that evening when we were planning the boycott. She knew he had abilities to speak.

We wanted to do two things. We knew that if we won [Mrs. Parks’] case, all it would have done was simply found her not guilty. We would still have the city ordinances and the state statutes on the books, which required segregation of the races on the buses. Most historians now say that was the beginning of not only the Montgomery bus boycott, that was the beginning of the civil rights movement.

In 1963, King led nonviolent demonstrations for integration through Birmingham, strongly opposed by public safety commissioner Bull Connor. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he called the city “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”

   DAVIS (’59): In Birmingham, you still had the problem of Bull Connor and just out-and-out segregation in every form of your life.

   LEE (’87): There was never any discussion about the bullet shots through the window. We just had a routine we followed when that would happen. We realized that [my father] was a target and oftentimes we were escorted to and from school. But we never really talked about that.

   DAVIS (’59): If you were going to be a lawyer in Birmingham, you knew that you were going to have to handle civil rights cases. When I first started practicing law, I shared space with two other lawyers. We were hired by three of the leading citizens of Huntsville in late 1960, early 1961, to defend over 100 students. They staged sit-in demonstrations. We tried those cases and had to drive from Birmingham to Huntsville every morning because the hotels were segregated and we couldn’t stay there.

We had to drive up and down the highway twice a day. I had some anxiety about it, but I did not fear for my life. I was kind of stupid. They could’ve killed us going up and down that highway. The highway between Birmingham and Huntsville during that time was a two-lane road.

We ultimately took one of the cases to the Alabama Court of Appeals and we won that case. We won every one of those cases.

   CLEMON (’68): During the boycott, we met with several merchants of the downtown stores, and they said they were willing to take down the “white only” and “colored” signs, but they were required by city ordinance to maintain those signs. So we collected signatures, mostly from black citizens of Birmingham, about 10,000 of them, asking the city commission to remove the segregation ordinances.

By the time we got to City Hall, the president-elect of the Miles College student body had lost his nerve. I got up and said we had this petition asking for repeal. Bull Connor asked me what part of town I lived in; I told him I lived in Westville, which was technically outside of city limits. He declared I was an outside agitator, just trying to cause trouble. At that point, another student got up and the petition was presented. Bull Connor then said he was calling the police, two floors up, to come and get us, and to be out of town by sundown—which I was.

   DAVIS (’59): I worked with a number of other black lawyers and white lawyers to change the form of government in early 1963 from a commission to a city council, and we elected a nine-member city council and a mayor. If we had not changed the form of government, I don’t think that the merchants would have had the nerve to get rid of the segregated rooms people used to try on clothes, or to hire [African-American] sales clerks.

For many, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked turning points from a time when Jim Crow and segregation were brutal facts of life.

   FRANK JAMES, University of Alabama School of Law, 1978; Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Birmingham: I remember going to the Krystal the same day the Civil Rights Act was enacted. They did not want to serve me. There was a police officer in the restaurant who just glared at me with his red face. He was not yet ready to abide by the law. That is the last very clear recollection that I have of segregation.

   CLEMON (’68): I saw, in effect, a world change in my first two years of college. We boycotted the stores in ’62 and ’63. 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.

   DAVIS (’59): 300,000-some people lived in Birmingham. Maybe one-third were black, but out of that 100,000, only 7,000 were voters. When the Voting Rights bill was passed, President Johnson sent voting registrars down to Birmingham, to Atlanta, to New Orleans, and the numbers just quadrupled overnight. That was the beginning of having black mayors in some of these cities and members of the city councils.

   JAMES (’78): I joined the Army in 1965. The Army was leading the way for providing opportunities for minorities. I came home for Christmas in 1970. I saw that a great movie was playing—Stagecoach with John Wayne—and I thought nothing about driving to Birmingham and going to the Alabama Theatre. As I recall, we went anywhere we wanted to go by that time. A lot happened during those six years. I would say the world changed rapidly.

   GRAY (’54): I recognized that there was a possibility that Dr. King would be assassinated. I was aware of the fact that he had been stabbed up in New York some time before. But you’d never be prepared for things like that. I realized we had lost a person; [I] also realized the struggle for equal rights will continue. He was in Memphis trying to help a group of people who needed help, just like in Montgomery. He was doing what he started doing, which [was] helping to solve problems.

By the 1970s and 1980s, more African-American attorneys were practicing in the courtroom, but there were still struggles, and firsts to achieve. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed U.W. Clemon to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. He became the state’s first African-American federal judge and was chief judge from 1999 to 2006.

   KENNETH SIMON, University of Alabama School of Law, 1979; Judicial Arbiter Group; Birmingham: The work that the civil rights lawyers were doing was a real inspiration for me. I could see the lawyers physically coming and going as they worked, because my grandfather lived directly across the street from [Mobile attorney Vernon Z.] Crawford’s law firm. They had no idea that here’s this kid watching what they were doing. I had basically decided in high school that I wanted to be a lawyer, too.

   CLEMON (’68): When I started practicing law, none of the federal judges 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 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. 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 [Court of Appeals], which at that time was set in the French Quarter of New Orleans. One of the cases became the leading school desegregation case: Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District. As a result, the 5th Circuit adopted what they called a Singleton decree, which became part of every school desegregation case in the Deep South.

   SIMON (’79): I started at the University of Alabama in 1976. I think the first graduating class with African-Americans had been maybe three or four years before. So integration was still fairly new to the law school. I worked as a law clerk after my first year and second year, and by the time I got to the beginning of my last year in law school, the question was: Would they actually offer me a job as a lawyer? I had friends in the legal community who told me that, “It’s never going to happen; they are not going to offer you a job, because that’s just not the way it is here.”

The firm, Nettles, Cox and Barker, was made up of all Republicans. So the expectation was they would not do that. But interestingly enough, they did. As far as I know, I was the first African-American hired in a majority firm in our state.

   LEE (’87): During the ‘60s, if an African-American attorney had a case on the docket, he would be the last one called, although he might have been there first. There’s no doubt that things had changed from the ’60s to the ’80s. You could eat where you wanted to eat and you could sleep in any hotel. But there was still discrimination.

   CLEMON (’68): The thought never occurred to me in the years I was practicing civil rights law. I always knew that federal judges were essential in the implementation of civil rights legislation and in fair treatment under the nation’s equality laws. I took a 50 percent decrease in salary but it was well worth it.

The chief judge of the court and clerk of the court generally handled the personnel decisions for the court. When I became chief judge, I started giving equal opportunity 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.

   LEE (’87): I was a clinical psychologist. It began to get to me; kids start asking you to go home with them and to adopt them. I asked a family friend if he knew of a job, and he told me he was not going to help me get a job anywhere else, that I should be in an office with my dad, practicing with him.

I had a very friendly law school class. By 1984, the schools were integrated. It was very pleasant.

   JAMES (’78): I was the first black law clerk for a federal judge in Alabama. But it’s not something people talk about today. It’s commonplace. We don’t really have “firsts” anymore. Baker Donelson is a firm that welcomes everyone. We really believe in diversity and inclusion.

By the 1990s and 2000s, minority enrollment in U.S. law schools nearly doubled from 17,300 students in 1990 to 34,584 students in the 2013–2014 school year, according to ABA data. And in 2013, the once-segregated University of Alabama was named one of media company On Being a Black Lawyer’s “Top 25 National Law Schools for Black Students.”

   G. COURTNEY FRENCH, Cumberland School of Law, 1998; Fuston, Petway & French; Birmingham: It was when I was in high school that I came up with the idea, really settled in my heart and soul, to become a lawyer. I knew Judge Clemon and J. Mason Davis growing up as a child because they had done so much in this community.

   KENDALL DUNSON, University of Alabama School of Law, 1996; Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles; Montgomery: The class before us may have had seven to nine [African-Americans]. My class had 25-plus. For people who looked like me, who came before me, you couldn’t get around [prejudice and discrimination]. For me, it was just something that slowed me down, so why should I complain about it? It would be difficult for me, but it was impossible for them.

   STEPHANIE HOUSTON MAYS, Cumberland School of Law, 2007; Maynard Cooper & Gale; Birmingham: It did enhance my law school experience to have people who looked like me in class. I remember some challenging discussions about race, which I enjoyed. We were reading about a case and a white male made a comment when he was briefing the case: “Well, they lived in the projects.”

I went up to him after class and said, “In no way, in this case, did it say this family lived in the projects, and I don’t appreciate you making that assumption.” He saw the error of his comments. We all view the world through the lens that we have. So I helped him to clean his lens off a little bit.

   DUNSON (’96): I went through law school from 1993 to 1996, and I read a whole bunch of cases that had Fred Gray’s name on them, civil rights cases and other cases that I didn’t even know that he had been involved in. I’m a products liability attorney. Fred Gray may have been a great products liability attorney, but he couldn’t do that. He had to do civil rights. And so here it is, I’ve never done a civil rights case before, because Fred and those before me took care of that. I appreciate those efforts so I can do what I love.

   DERRICK MILLS, University of Alabama School of Law, 2003; Marsh, Rickard & Bryan, Birmingham: I clerked for Judge Clemon after I graduated from law school. I remember asking, “Are you disappointed in me? Shouldn’t I be going into civil rights law and using my skills for more, to do better?”

And Judge Clemon sat down—he wears glasses, but when he is really wanting to talk to you, he’ll slide those glasses down his nose and really stare at you—and said, “Derrick, that’s exactly what we want you to do. We want you to work at the best firm, learn how to be the best lawyer and make the most money.”

Obviously, times and attitudes have changed between 1955 and 2015. How much is a matter of perspective.

   DANIELLE WARD MASON, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, 2007; Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles; Montgomery: I honestly have been extremely fortunate. I have never had a situation where I dealt with blatant racism. I’ve never been met with anything but the utmost respect by judges.

   MAYS (’07): I am one of very few black lawyers at my firm. We represent companies in all types of cases, including matters in which people allege that they have been discriminated against. Am I able to bring a perspective that’s different than my partners? Absolutely. And I believe that sometimes contributes to why I’m on the team. I don’t think I was selected to participate on certain matters just because I’m a black female, but was that a contributing factor in some cases? I don’t doubt that it is.

   DAVIS (’59): You’ve got more than 200 black lawyers in Birmingham. I’m the oldest. Those young people are having a hard time making a living. The population of Birmingham has fallen to about 100,000 people. Heavy industry has left here; the jobs are out in the rural areas.

During segregation, you had a lot of black businesses, black insurance companies, restaurants, haberdasheries. Most of those places don’t even exist anymore. One time there were three black newspapers; now there’s one. So you don’t have the clientele that these young lawyers can go out and attempt to get.

   FRENCH (’98): When you look across Alabama, and even in Birmingham, at the largest law firms, you can count on one hand the number of minority attorneys—which I think is unbelievable. If you asked the partners in the firm, they would say they’re not discriminating, but minorities are not being hired. There are more than enough qualified attorneys for these positions. We’ve come a long way and significant progress has been made; however, we still have a long way to go.

   MAYS (’07): Retention issues [are] a problem in the legal industry in general. We get people into an environment but don’t get them plugged in. I heard a diversity trainer once say, “It’s not enough to be invited to the dance; you have to be invited to dance.” I’ve had great opportunities and great assignments. Not everybody gets the same opportunities and those same assignments—getting invited to dance.

   SIMON (’79): If I look at the courthouse now, I see at least eight African-American judges in our county. A tremendous difference.

   LEE (’87): There’s been very little progress made in terms of the appellate courts. We’ve had two African-Americans sit on the Alabama Supreme Court, initially by appointment. We still have a lot of secret hatred and prejudices throughout this state that prohibit minorities from being appointed to the appellate bench.

   MASON (’07): In 2014–2015, we’re seeing some of the same arguments circle back around, the same issues a lot of [civil rights attorneys] fought, coming back now: voting rights tax, chipping away of affirmative action, gerrymandering, and the way our seven states in particular have redrawn lines and redistricted.

In my day, I didn’t expect to see the same calls to action. All of us have an obligation to make sure we are protecting that. The movements 60 years ago were a necessary and vital step in the greater quest for equality and opportunity, but a fight still remains.

   CLEMON (’68): 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. 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 have found something else to do.

   GRAY (’54): The disparity between the majority and the minorities is still alive, from health care to employment to housing to criminal justice. I tell people all the time, if you look close enough, there are signs that too many decisions in this country are being made based on race. It’s not going to go away by itself.We’ve got to come up with a plan.

You’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to execute it. Racism is so ingrained in this country that it will take massive help to correct it; help from the federal, state, local government, institutions of higher learning, businesses and corporations, fraternities in society, religious organizations. And we never do that. So the struggle for equal justice continues.

   SIMON (’79): I’m really amazed at the growth that has occurred. When you look at the number of African-Americans in law firms, there are so many. Obviously, this all goes back to the effort that was made by those in the civil rights movement—by black lawyers in our state who really paid an enormous price in those early years of practice because they had to suffer a lot of humiliation.

Did I experience discrimination? In a sense, it was the reverse. I had the opportunity to experience the opening of doors that had been closed before. It was the beginning of a whole new world. And the start of the world that we now live in.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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