For our 2015 Alabama Super Lawyers Magazine, we delved into civil rights and the African-American bar 60 years after the Montgomery bus boycott and 50 years after the marches from Selma. Be sure to check out our oral history about the experiences of 11 African-American attorneys who graduated law school in six different decades, including Fred Gray, who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and U.W. Clemon, the first-ever black federal judge in Alabama.
Below you’ll find excerpts of our interviews with Gray and Clemon.
Q: You were not allowed to go law school in Alabama and had to go out of state. Were you aware that this would be a barrier for you?
A: That was a generally known matter by African-Americans in the Southern states. The Southern states had come up with a plan as a part of separate-but-equal under Plessy v. Ferguson: Instead of admitting African-Americans to the historical white institutions, they would provide them with some assistance so that they could attend any other college and university where the course offered at the historical white institution was not offered at a historical black institution. All of the black institutions were aware of it, and they advised their students if they were interested in going off to graduate school or professional schools that were not offered under the traditional black schools, they could get some assistance from the state of Alabama.
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.
On our website, you can also explore historic photos, audio clips and a timeline tracing Alabama’s place at the forefront of civil rights history.