Before there were preachers there were lawyers — lots of lawyers. Black lawyers, white lawyers, Jewish lawyers, women lawyers, lawyers trained in Dixie, lawyers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and lawyers with Ivy League pedigrees. Before the preachers became the acknowledged spokesmen for the Movement, there were already lawyers on the ground chipping away at Jim Crow.
Without them, Birmingham would not have become the Civil Rights Movement’s nerve center. Nevertheless, they generally receive second and third billing behind spellbinding preachers, notably Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth, and bigots, chiefly Eugene “Bull” Connor and the Ku Klux Klan. They also take a back seat to politicians like Governor George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy, who could not have performed without them. Historians have slighted them too, being drawn instead to the swagger and glitz of the rest.
On May 4, the Birmingham Bar Association and the Magic City Bar Association tried to set the record straight when they honored lawyers who played a significant role in the Birmingham Movement. They threw them and their families a beautiful gala and rolled out an excellent documentary called Preserving Justice.
The keynote speaker, and a recipient, was Clarence B. Jones, the iconic Martin Luther King confidant and speechwriter who helped get the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to press. Jones made emotional remarks about the city he saw in 2013, which, he said, looked nothing like the one he left in 1963. Anyone could tell he was amazed, caught off guard by what by Birmingham had become. He credited “good” people – good lawyers, black and white — for the transformation.
Jones had the luxury of the historian’s perspective and he offered it. He generously recognized that no single one of those attorneys could have untangled segregation by himself or herself. All of their efforts required collaboration, on some level, between the races, and across religious and gender barriers. What he did not say, but likely understood, was that there remain unsung others – mostly women perhaps — who still have received no mention, much less any awards. Their stories are still out there and yet to be told.
The 28 honorees represent several main categories of achievement: civil rights law, labor law and Birmingham’s change of government movement. Many of their cases set federal law under which the country operates today. As they are discussed, each will be identified as African-American, White, Jewish, or Woman. While this format might be anachronistic now, at the time, it was central to the story.
Oscar W. Adams, Sr. – African-American – Adams was born in Birmingham in 1925 to a family of activists. He was educated at A. H. Parker High School, Talladega College (HBCU) and Howard University Law School (HBCU). In 1947 he was admitted to the Alabama bar and began specializing in Civil Rights cases. He often represented Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, and was part of the “Birmingham Campaign” that organized the 1963 boycotts.
In 1966, he became the first black member of the Birmingham Bar Association, and in 1967, he cofounded the state’s first integrated law practice with Harvey M. Burg. In 1980, he became the state’s first black Supreme Court justice.
Norman Amaker – African-American – Amaker graduated from Amherst College in 1956 and Columbia University law school in 1959. He began practice in New York City, where he represented the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). In 1963, the organization sent him to Birmingham to represent King after his arrest. Along with Clarence Jones, Amaker helped get King’s letter out of jail and into publication. He worked with Arthur Shores and Orzell Billingsley to temporarily prevent Bull Connor from arresting demonstrators, and he also argued for voting and public accommodations rights and against jury and employment discrimination.
James K. Baker – African-American – Baker graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the country’s first degree-granting HBCU, and got his law degree from Cornell University. He was a contemporary of Oscar Adams and U. W. Clemon, with whom he formed a practice. Baker handled cases that challenged Alabama’s all-white jury practices and segregated public facilities.
Abe Berkowitz – Jewish – Berkowitz got his law degree from the University of Alabama and began practicing law in Birmingham in 1928. In 1948 he demanded that the governor revoke the Ku Klux Klan’s state charter after the group raided a Girl Scouts camp and terrorized its black and white counselors.
In 1961, the Birmingham Bar Association appointed Berkowitz to a committee to study options to the city’s form of government. In February it recommended the 3-man commission be replaced with a mayor-council. The next year Berkowitz invited David Vann, Vernon Patrick Jr., Erskine Smith and Charles F. Zukoski Jr. to join the firm and coordinate a more concerted effort. Within months, the city had held a special election, replaced the government, and put Bull Connor out of a job.
Orzell Billingsley – African-American – Billingsley was known as the “black Patrick Henry of Alabama.” He graduated from Talladega College (HBCU) in 1946 and Howard University (HBCU) in 1950. He was a lead attorney for Martin Luther King during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and handled federal cases against all-white juries. In 1963, he appeared before Birmingham’s first city council with a list of demands including equal employment, appointment of blacks to municipal boards and an end to police brutality.
Harvey Burg – Jewish – Burg graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and Columbia University law school four years later. In 1963, he volunteered as a marshal for the historic March on Washington. In 1964, while still a student, he worked for Alabama attorneys Oscar Adams and Orzell Billingsley. Burg handled federal cases challenging segregated schools in Birmingham, Bessemer and Jefferson County, and assisted in cases against all-white juries.
U.W. Clemon – African-American – Clemon graduated from Miles College (HBCU) in 1965 and Columbia University Law School in 1968. In 1962, when he was still a teenager, he presented a petition to Bull Connor protesting segregation. In 1969, he brought suit against University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, demanding the recruitment of blacks. He also helped established a biracial committee to end police brutality. In 1980, he became Alabama’s first black federal judge.
Jerome “Buddy” Cooper – Jewish – Cooper grew up in Alabama and graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. From 1937-1940 Cooper was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s first law clerk. Later, he was co-counsel in the landmark Baker v. Carr (1962) decision, which ruled racial gerrymandering unconstitutional, and the Reynolds v. Sims (1964) case that set the “one man, one vote” rule. In addition, as the region’s foremost labor lawyer, when the city jailed demonstrators in 1963 Cooper secretly helped the United Steelworkers Union wire $200,000 to bail them out.
J. Mason Davis – African-American – Davis was from a prominent Black Belt Alabama family. He graduated from Talladega College but, like his black counterparts, could not attend law school in Alabama. As a result, he went to the State University of New York at Buffalo for law school. He is credited especially for his voter registration work, which ultimately pushed Bull Connor out of office. Along with Billingsley and attorney Peter Hall, he also represented more than 100 demonstrators arrested for sitting at “white” lunch counters.
Edward Friend Jr. – Jewish – Friend was from Alabama, and received his undergraduate (1946) and law (1950) degrees from the University of Alabama. He was an early advocate for legal services, and became a founder of Birmingham’s Legal Aid Society. In the 1950s he helped Jefferson Country’s Hillman Hospital desegregate its medical staff, and later worked for Birmingham’s change of government.
Peter Hall – African-American – Hall got his undergraduate degree from Johnson C. Smith University (HBCU), founded in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1876. In 1946 he received his law degree from Paul University. Later he worked with Orzell Billingsley and attorney Arthur Shores on discrimination cases challenging all-white juries. He also defended King during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and Birmingham demonstrators in 1963.
Charles Hamilton Houston – African-American – Houston was born in Washington D. C. in 1895. He graduated from Amherst College in 1915 and Harvard University Law School in 1923. In 1929 he became dean of Howard University Law School. He also served as litigation director for the NAACP, where he was nicknamed “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”
Frank M. Johnson – White – Johnson graduated from the University of Alabama law school in 1943, where he got to know George Wallace. At first friends, they later became political archenemies as Wallace took on federal Civil Rights rulings and Johnson countermanded his opposition. For more information, read The Judge: The Life and Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson Jr., by Frank Sikora.
Paul Johnson – White — Johnson was from Birmingham. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, and his law education from Yale University 1933. After World War II he participated in the Nuremburg Trials, and later returned to Birmingham. In 1954 he wrote a letter to The Birmingham News supporting the controversial Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1965, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach asked him to represent Gary Thomas Rowe, the controversial FBI informant who spied on the Ku Klux Klan.
Clarence B. Jones – African-American – Jones graduated from Columbia University in 1956 and Boston University Law School three years later. In 1963 he drafted the agreement between the City of Birmingham and Martin Luther King that ended street demonstrations. He later helped King draft his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Tom King, Sr. – White – King grew up in Birmingham and graduated from the University of Alabama and University of Alabama Law School. In 1961, while serving as administrative assistant to labor-friendly U. S. Congressman George Huddleston, a group of Birmingham lawyers recruited him to run for mayor in hopes of replacing its racist government with progressives. The campaign was upended when a photographer captured him shaking hands with a black man. Undeterred, King tried again two years later but did not win. During his campaigns a cross was burned in his yard.
Thurgood Marshall – African-American – Marshall was trained by Charles Hamilton Houston. He was appointed chief counsel for the NAACP, for whom he argued many cases before the U. S. Supreme Court,the most famous of which was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In 1976, he became the first black justice to sit on the court.
Nina Miglionico – White Woman – Miglionico was active in Civil Rights cases for 25 years before being elected to Birmingham’s first city council in 1963. Throughout her career she worked against the poll tax, and for women’s right to sit on juries. When she became the first woman nominated for a congressional seat by a major party, a cross – believed to belong to the Ku Klux Klan – was burned in her yard.
Chuck Morgan – White – Morgan was a native of Birmingham and received both his undergraduate degree (1953) and law degree (1955) from the University of Alabama. After the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, he railed against the “popularity of hatred” that arguably made whites “more guilty than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” His words caused him to lose his practice and leave Birmingham. In 1964 he wrote A Time to Speak about his experiences.
Constance Baker Motley – African-American Woman – Motley got her undergraduate degree from New York University in 1943 and her law degree from Columbia University in 1946. She became principal trial attorney for the NAACP and wrote the original complaint in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In Meredith v. Fair – which secured James Meredith’s right to enroll in the University of Mississippi’s Law School — she became the first black woman to argue before the U. S. Supreme Court. She later argued the Gober v. City of Birmingham and Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham cases to the Supreme Court and helped litigate school desegregation cases throughout the Southeast.
Demetrius Newton – African-American – Newton grew up in the Birmingham area. He earned an undergraduate degree from Wilberforce University in 1949 and a law degree from Boston University three years later. He became active in Civil Rights in Fairfield, Alabama and served as municipal judge for the city of Brownville from 1972-1978.
Vernon Patrick – White – Patrick received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. From 1955-1956, he served as Justice Hugo Black’s law clerk. When he returned to Birmingham, he joined the Citizens for Progress Committee to help secure a change of government special election. In 1963 he helped found the firm of Berkowitz, Lefkovits, Vann, Patrick and Smith, which was continuously involved in Civil Rights cases.
J. Richmond Pearson – African-American – Pearson graduated from Morehouse College (HBCU) in 1955 and Howard University Law School (HBCU) in 1958. He represented sit-in demonstrators in Birmingham and challenged segregated public facilities in Gadsden. He also litigated employment and gender discrimination cases. In 1974, he was one of the first black men since Reconstruction to be elected to the state senate. Later he became a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge.
Arthur D. Shores – African-American – Known as the “Drum Major For Justice” and the “Dean of Black Attorneys” in Alabama, Shores earned his undergraduate degree from Talladega College (HBCU) in 1927 and his law degree from Chicago’s La Salle Extension University. He was admitted to the Alabama bar in 1937 and, rather than serve as background counsel for a white lawyer, he became the state’s first black attorney to represent his own clients in court. In 1955 he represented Autherine Lucy, a black woman, after the University of Alabama denied her admission. Always a thorn in Bull Connor’s side, the commissioner once shouted, “If you let Arthur Shores on the hill [Dynamite Hill], niggers will be everywhere.” Shores’ Dynamite Hill home was bombed at least twice.
His daughters, one of whom is a sitting judge, have published a memoir called The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill. In it they document their father’s close relationships with King, Thurgood Marshall, Constance Motley and others.
E. Erskine Smith – White – Smith grew up in Los Angeles but moved to Birmingham in 1947, and got his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Alabama. He worked closely with Abe Berkowitz, David Vann and the Citizens for Progress for a change of government special election. Reportedly, once voters signed their petitions, he guarded them with a shotgun until they could be verified. He also borrowed money to bail protesters out of jail.
Robert Vance – White — Vance grew up in Talladega. He received his law degree from the University of Alabama and his L.L.M. from George Washington Law School in 1955. After school he moved to Birmingham and began to challenge all-white juries and other segregation laws. He also did battle with George Wallace for control of the state’s Democratic Party organization. In 1989, while a federal judge, he was killed by a mail bomb.
David Vann – White – Vann got his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Alabama and his Master’s of Law from George Washington University. He went on to clerk for Justice Hugo Black when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was rendered. When he returned to Birmingham, he became its foremost leader to change its form of government. Vann’s efforts have been chronicled in most major histories of the era.
W. L. Williams Jr. – African-American – Williams got his undergraduate degree from Fisk University (HBCU) in 1951 and his law degree from Boston University in 1959. He then worked as local attorney for the NAACP and, in 1963’s Armstrong v. City of Birmingham he helped black students desegregate Birmingham schools. He also tackled segregated public accommodations and represented Martin Luther King during Birmingham’s demonstrations.
These lawyers represented the establishment. Not the one that was, but the one they imagined. They did not march in the streets, seek cameras or inspire the masses. But without their successes the protests — and the bloodshed – would not have mattered, and the dream of equality would have stayed a nightmare.
Birmingham is right to be proud of its Civil Rights cases and the mostly homegrown lawyers who won them. No one made them do the work they did; they did it because it was the right thing to do. Every one of them could have pursued careers other than the ones they chose. They could have made more money, perhaps, and avoided the physical, psychological and economic toll their work took. They could have refused to work collectively, too, but the common good required otherwise.
Besides these there are others. They also deserve recognition, and they need credit. This community deserves it, and the record demands it.
The author would like to extend special thanks to the Birmingham Bar Association for its cooperation with this article. If readers know of other lawyers or non-lawyers who deserve recognition for their role in Birmingham’s Movement please contact Weld or the author.