Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I had a typical childhood of an African American boy born in 1930 in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama. Everything was completely segregated. I lived in a segregated community, a segregated school system, a segregated everything.
I went to the Lovelass School in Montgomery through the seventh grade. I was interested in the ministry and I went to a church school, the Nashville Christian Institute, in Nashville, Tennessee. I finished high school there. Then I returned to Montgomery, Alabama to go to college to be a preacher and a teacher. I went to Alabama State College, then known as Alabama State College for Negroes, which is a historically black college in Montgomery, and majored in political science and minored in mathematics.
I worked for the local newspaper company as circulation manager for the afternoon paper. My only means of transportation were the city buses. I would ride the city buses from twice a day to three times a day because I lived on one side of town, the college was on the other side of town, and the office for the newspaper was downtown. I did a lot of traveling on the buses.
One of the things that I was greatly concerned about was that a lot of people had had problems on the buses. Either they were asked to get up and give up their seats or their money was accepted in the front and they had to go around to the back, or the driver was just plain discourteous.
Everything around Montgomery was completely segregated. If an African American had a legal problem involving a person of another race, it would be very difficult to obtain a lawyer. There were very few, if any, lawyers in Montgomery at that time that would handle civil rights cases and there were no African American lawyers in the city when I started going to college.
I concluded that what we really needed was a lawyer that would be willing to help with some of these cases. And I made a personal secret commitment that I kept for thirty-five years that I was going to leave Alabama to go to law school, because I could not attend the University of Alabama Law School because of my race, and come back to Alabama, pass the bar exam, and destroy everything segregated I could find.
That's how I decided to become a lawyer and that's what I did.
Q: Where did you get the courage?
A: I just had it. I had a good mother who instilled within her children that we could become anything we wanted to be. There were three things she said we had to do: We needed to be committed in Christ and keep Him first in our lives. We needed to stay in school and get a good education. And, we needed to stay out of the criminal justice system. "If you do that," she said, "you can do anything you want to do." I've tried to instill that in my four children.
Q: You went to law school out of state?
A: I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I took the Ohio bar exam and I took the Alabama bar exam. I was successful and passed both. I received a license from the Alabama Supreme Court on September 8, 1954 and immediately began the practice of law. I already knew all the persons in the area who were involved in civil rights litigation, including Mr. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman car porter by occupation, who was considered "Mr. Civil Rights". If anybody had a racial problem they'd go to him.
I knew Mrs. Parks. She was the secretary to the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also the youth director. And I started a young political group called the Young Alabama Democrats. In less than nine months, on March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was represented, I represented a fifteen-year old African American student who was arrested on similar charges that Mrs. Parks was arrested on nine months later.
Her name was Claudette Colvin. She lived in the northeast section of the town and went to Booker Washington High School. When she was coming from school, she got on the bus at the same place Mrs. Parks got on the bus, but she got on a Capital Heights bus. She went one block. The bus driver asked her to get up and give her seat to a white man. She refused. They literally dragged her off the bus. I represented Claudette. And, all the other persons who came to Mrs. Parks' rescue nine months later came to Claudette's rescue at that time.
We ended up threatening to have a bus boycott, but the town structure talked us out of it and we didn't do it. It was determined, when Mrs. Parks was arrested nine months later, what had happened to Claudette wouldn't happen to Mrs. Parks. All this is set out in my book Bus Ride to Justice.
Q: Did you know at the time that this would be what we now call the beginning of the civil rights movement?
A: It wasn't about starting a movement. It was a matter of trying to correct a wrong that existed. And this was a part of correcting the wrong. It developed into the movement. What happened in Mrs. Parks' situation and after she was arrested was a calculated plan to organize, develop, and have a bus boycott. None of us knew how it was going to work out at the time, but we were willing to make the effort.
Q: What about the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court?
A: The case that ultimately decided the issue was the case of Browder vs. Gail. Mrs. Parks was not a litigant in that case. She had been arrested for disorderly conduct and charged with a criminal offense in the Recorders Court of the City of Montgomery. She was found guilty. Her case was ultimately appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. But, even if we had won that case, we still would have had segregated buses because there would have been nothing to declare the statutes to be unconstitutional.
I told our people that what we needed to do was to file a separate lawsuit and ask the court to declare the city ordinances and the state statutes that describe segregation on the buses to be unconstitutional. In that case Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, Mrs. Susie McDonald, and Mrs. Jeanetta Reese were the plaintiffs. That case was tried initially in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. It was a three-judge district court because we were challenging the constitutionality of a state statute. We won it in that case. The defendants appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court. We filed a motion to affirm. The U. S. Supreme Court granted our motion to affirm. So, we did not have to physically go to Washington on that case.
Q: You took on a lot of cases to end the injustice.
A: I have been involved in cases from buses and transportation, to parks, to airports, to employment. I worked with the NAACP and did all the kinds of things they have been doing throughout the country for years. Twenty, twenty-five, or more of those cases are described in Bus Ride to Justice.
Q: What does racial discrimination look like today?
A: We have made a substantial amount of progress. There has been some progress in education. There has been progress in public accommodation. There has been substantial progress in voter registration and elected officials. And, we have had some progress in economics so that minorities can gradually get out of poverty and into the middle class.
I think one of our greatest areas that still needs to be changed is economic discrimination. Economic disparity between the majority and the minority needs to be corrected. That's one of the areas where we have a great deal of decisions being made on race. People will tell you that you have equal opportunity. But, if you look at the numbers, you will see that most of the persons in the top supervisory positions are the same as they were fifty years ago. And that's basically Caucasian males.
Q: What is your comment on the lawsuits involving the University of Michigan and its consideration of race in university admissions?
A: I hope they will be successful in it. There is a case Carr vs. Montgomery County Board of Education that I handled involving the public school systems of Montgomery, Alabama. After I had gotten the school somewhat integrated, the faculty and staff were still not integrated. I filed a motion with the court and asked to call that to the court's attention and asked the court if it would enter an order in which it would look at the composition of the school's population in terms of white/black, look at the faculty white/black, and to come up with an order that would eliminate the discrimination which was still taking place in employment of teachers, faculty, and staff.
And that case went up to the United States Supreme Court. Let me read to you from page 207 of Bus Ride to Justice:
Several years after the original decision in Carr, the Montgomery County Board of Education had made little progress with respect to integrating its faculty. For that reason, Judge Johnson, in an order entered in 1968, provided that the board must move toward a goal under which "in each school the ratio of white to black faculty members is substantially the same as it is throughout the system." In addition, the order set forth a specific schedule for goals and numerical time-tables. Ultimately, the case was heard before the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court affirmed Judge Johnson's order and stated that his plan "promises realistically to work and promises realistically to work now."
This was really the first time numerical goals and timetables were approved by the United States Supreme Court and it has led to this whole discussion about affirmative action. I think it's not a matter of just permitting persons who are not qualified to enter, but it's a matter of doing whatever it takes to eliminate the effects of past discrimination.
Q: I know a lot of people today ask whether affirmative action is really necessary. And your answer to that is?
A: The answer is: Until such time as race is no longer a consideration and is no longer used, subvertly or overtly, then we're going to need something in place that will give equal opportunity to those persons who have not had opportunity in the past.
Q: What would you use as the measuring stick to know when it's no longer needed?
A: You have to look at what you have. You can look at the facts and you can look at the results.
Q: Could you go back to your argument about economic discrimination?
A: Yes. If you don't have any results, then you know you haven't gotten there yet.
Q: What actions can an individual take to work against discrimination?
A: If you put it on an individual basis, the answer starts with the person. My oldest daughter told me one good way to begin would be for every person to decide that they're going to have their best friend be a person of a different race. Now that's a simple thing. It's something everybody can do, if they want to. If you do that you find out a lot about that person that you don't know. You learn about their culture, their likes, their dislikes, what they eat, and it will be the beginning of increasing one's diversity.
Q: Of what are you most proud in your legal career?
A: One of the things is to consider how things were when I started and at the time I filed the first law suit, and then to look at the progress that has been made since that time, to see the changes that have occurred, and to realize that I've been at least a part of a process what has resulted in these changes.
Q: What is your advice to someone who is contemplating a career in the legal profession?
A: They need to be really committed. Now I'm the president of the Alabama State Bar. I never dreamed I would be. The theme we are using this year is, "Lawyers render service: service to their clients, service to their profession, and service to the community." There is no greater challenge or ambition than for a person to want to do something to help others. And that is what the legal system is all about.