Skip to main content

Civil Rights and Social Activism in the South: Series 2: Parts 1-2


Available Downloads

AUTHOR FICHE REEL CONTENT

About this Collection

Introduction: Civil Rights and Social Activism in the South: Series 2:Part 1 - Vernon Z

Introduction: Civil Rights and Social Activism in theSouth: Series 2: Part 1 - Vernon Z. Crawford Records, 1958-1978; Part 2 -Selections from Blacksher, Menefee and Stein Records

 

Collection Overview

 

As civil rights historiography moves deeper into its secondphase, the study of local and community organizations becomes more important.The papers of Vernon Z. Crawford and the records of the Blacksher, Menefee, andStein Law Firm from the holdings of the University of South Alabama Archivescomprise an extensive collection of civil rights material and represent asignificant contribution to civil rights scholarship. Scholars are now focusingon the local dimensions of the post-1965 period, when strategies shifted andcivil rights organizations turned to a variety of issues that differed from thetargets of the 1950s and early 1960s. While scholars have focused on activitiesin Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, this collection opens a wider study intothe activities of another Alabama city, one with a unique ethnic mix, as wellas a unionized work force that rivaled that of Birmingham.

 

 

The Legal Battle for Civil Rights in Alabama is drawnfrom the papers of Vernon Z. Crawford and the Blacksher, Menefee, and SteinCollection. It features files on lawsuits relating to topics like schooldesegregation, discriminatory juror selection, and minority vote dilution.Materials filmed include legal documentation, complaints, petitions, requests,depositions, handwritten notes, correspondence, exhibits (maps, plans of schoolbuildings, population diagrams), news clippings, and surveys relating to majorlegal cases.

 

This microform edition will be of interest to researchers inpolitical science, history, law, and other fields as an opportunity to examineessential primary documents surrounding several major civil rights cases triedin Alabama during the past four decades.

 

Introduction to the Collection

 

The papers of Vernon Z. Crawford and the Blacksher, Menefee,and Stein Collection comprise an extensive collection of material documentingthe legal battle for civil rights in Alabama in the latter part of thetwentieth-century. The microform edition of The Legal Battle for CivilRights in Alabama, assembled here by Primary Source Media, an imprint ofGale, a part of Cengage Learning, provides insight into key legal battlesregarding school desegregation, discriminatory juror selection, and minorityvote dilution. Crawford and his partners confronted Jim Crow in the courtroomduring the height of the civil rights movement; their victories had nationalramifications that are still felt today.

 

Vernon Zionchek Crawford was born in Mobile, Alabama in1919. At that time Mobile remained an economically depressed city, especiallyfor the African American population. African Americans in Mobile were asharshly segregated as in other southern cities, particularly in education andemployment. Crawford joined the Merchant Marine shortly before World War II.Following the war, he chose to leave the shipping industry and enrolled at AlabamaState University. In 1951, after his graduation, Crawford decided to pursue adegree in law from Brooklyn Law School in New York.

 

While Crawford worked toward a law degree in New York, theracial climate in the south began to deteriorate. In 1954, the United StatesSupreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools with its decision in Brownv. Board of Education. The Brown decision precipitated a parallelresurgence in African American activism and white resistance. Reactionaryforces began forming Citizens Councils and southern political leaders soughtways to circumvent the Brown decision and prevent further gains in civilrights. In June of 1956, just one month after Crawford was admitted to thestate bar, Alabama Attorney General John Patterson secured an injunctionagainst the NAACP for its failure to register as an out-of-state organization.The ruling destroyed the NAACPs ability to operate legally in the state until1964. Crawford returned to Mobile and opened a practice on Davis Avenue, in thecenter of Mobiles African American community. Over the next thirty years, hisfirm would participate in some of the most far-reaching legal cases of thecivil rights era.

 

In Mobile, civil rights activists reorganized under thebanner of the Non-Partisan Voters League. One of the Leagues most prominentmembers was local postman John L. LeFlore. He cultivated a working relationshipwith Crawford, who became counsel for the League. One of their earliest legalefforts was the Willie Seals case. Seals was convicted of rape by anall-white jury in 1958 and sentenced to death. The Non-Partisan Voters Leagueretained Crawford for the appeal. He argued that the systematic exclusion ofAfrican Americans from the jury rolls infringed upon Seals constitutionalrights and applied for a writ of error. The Alabama Supreme Court summarilyrejected Crawfords argument, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appealsreversed the decision in 1963 and granted one of the first writs of error inAlabama history. The Seals decision had national ramifications andserved as a precedent for the integration of juries throughout the south. Sealswas finally released in 1970 after a twelve-year incarceration.

 

Shortly after the Seals decision, Crawford and theLeague intervened in another local case. Nathaniel Taylor was charged with thebrutal murder of Lillian Kohorn in 1964. Taylor was arrested on the day ofKohorns murder for seeking work without a permit and confessed to killing thewoman after a thirty-eight hour interrogation. Crawford secured an acquittalafter a psychologist testified that Taylors mental disability prevented himfrom giving a voluntary confession. The prosecution had no physical evidencethat linked Taylor to the crime and he was released in July 1965. The Taylorcase, along with the Seals case, established a strong partnershipbetween Crawfords firm and the Non-Partisan Voters League.

 

In late November 1962, John LeFlore presented a petition forthe desegregation of Mobile schools, signed by the parents of twenty-sevenAfrican American students, to the all-white school board. At the time, Mobilesschool system was the largest in Alabama with eighty-nine schools and 72,000students, 40% of whom were African American. When the school board failed to acton the petition, NAACP counsel Constance Baker Motley announced that the LegalDefense Fund would support further legal action. Crawford became a cooperatingattorney for the NAACPs Legal Defense Fund and shifted his focus to civilrights litigation. On March 27, 1963, Vernon Crawford filed suit against theMobile County School Board on behalf of Birdie Mae Davis, Henry Hobdy, andtwenty other African American students. Within two weeks, legal battles inMobile were overshadowed by the beginning of Martin Luther King Jr.s campaignin Birmingham. Over the next four months, protests and violence in AlabamasMagic City dominated the national attention.

 

In June 1963, Judge Daniel Thomas ordered the school boardto submit a desegregation plan for the 1964-1965 school year. The Board chose abackwards stair step plan that would begin with the twelfth grade and movedown over the next several years. The plan would initially desegregate thethree high schools. Immediately following the decision, reactionary whites inthe Mobile area formed several organizations to oppose integration. Theirprotests would shatter Mobiles reputation as a city of racial moderation.

 

White Mobilians were not the only ones concerned with thedesegregation plan. Democratic Alabama Governor George C. Wallace ordered statepolice to several Alabama cities and successfully prevented desegregation ofMobile schools on September 9, 1963. His success was short-lived as Birdie MaeDavis and Henry Hobdy, two African American students, enrolled in classes thefollowing day. The next five days witnessed confrontations at schools and agrowing resistance to integration. School desegregation would remain a majorfactor in Mobile politics for the next decade. The effects were immediatelyvisible. In 1964, Mobile voted for Republican candidates for the first timesince Reconstruction.

 

The Birdie Mae Davis case can be divided into twodistinct phases. From 1964 to 1970, Birdie Mae Davis involved freedomof choice and zoning laws. After numerous reversals by Judge Daniel Thomas andthe Fifth Circuit, the case was added as a companion case to Swann v.Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which washeard before the Supreme Court in October 1970. In that case, the Supreme Courtruled that busing could be used to achieve integration, which resulted inanother shift in tactics for BirdieMae Davis. After 1970, the Davis case took on a life of its own as LeFlore and other African Americanleaders were increasingly occupied with school desegregation, leaving Crawfordand his partners to negotiate with school board attorneys. The case officiallyended in May of 1997, with the dubious distinction of being one of thelongest-running school desegregation cases in America.

 

Schooldesegregation, and the specter of busing in particular, dramatically alteredthe political climate in Mobile. The rise of white resistance coincided withthe emergence of a new civil rights organization in Mobile, The NeighborhoodOrganized Workers. Organized in 1966, NOW was transformed in 1968 by NobleBeasley, a native Mississippian with a checkered past, who became president ofthe group shortly before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April.Leaders of NOW applied for a permit to hold a march in honor of the slainleader. When their request was refused, Beasley sent marchers into the streetwhere they were joined by large numbers of sympathizers. The King marchinaugurated a period of confrontation between the organization and cityofficials. In 1969, NOW demonstrated outside the Junior Miss Pageant in Mobilebefore a national audience. During the incident mass arrests took place; JohnLeFlore and Vernon Crawford, who were observing the protests, wereincarcerated. Later that year, NOW leaders announced a boycott of the municipalelections. The boycott was opposed by the Non-Partisan Voters League becauseit endangered the Leagues practice of endorsing moderate white candidatesthrough the pink sheet campaign. Despite the Leagues opposition, the boycottresulted in a record-low turnout of the citys African American wards andcontributed to the defeat of Joseph Langan, a white moderate and long-timesupporter of LeFlore and the politics of gradualism.

 

The emergence ofNOW presented John LeFlore and the League with a tactical dilemma. With itsolder strategy effectively repudiated, the League shifted its focus fromelecting candidates to changing the structure of government itself. Since 1911,Mobile had elected city commissioners through at-large elections. The practice,which also applied to school board elections, effectively precluded theelection of an African American candidate, leaving African Americans to seekinfluence as swing voters in contests between white candidates.

 

By 1973, plans werebeing made to challenge Mobiles form of government. Earlier efforts toconvince voters to approve a mayor-council government were soundly defeated.The defeat proved that the only effective way to achieve a reversal of sixtyyears of discrimination would be through a class-action lawsuit. While plansfor the suit were forming, Crawfords firm steadily grew. James Blacksher, awhite graduate from the University of Alabama, joined the Crawford Firm in1971. He was joined by two other white attorneys, Larry Menefee and Greg Steinwho would soon take on most of Crawfords civil rights work.

 

In July 1975,twelve African American Mobilians filed suit charging that Mobiles at-largeform of government diluted minority voting rights in violation of the 1965Voting Rights Act. The principle plaintiff in the case was Wiley Bolden; aWorld War I veteran who fought in segregated American units in France andGermany and had helped John LeFlore organize the Mobile NAACP in 1926. OnJanuary 19, 1976, Bolden v. Cityof Mobile was certified as a classaction lawsuit. Judge Virgil Pittman opened the case that July. Pittman agreedto a tour of Mobiles African American wards to see first hand the salutaryneglect perpetuated by the at-large form of government. During these hearings,the Crawford Firm initiated a similar suit, Brown v. Moore, chargingthat the at-large election of school board members was unconstitutional. Brown and Bolden became inextricably linked, using the sameattorneys, witnesses and evidence. Judge Pittman ruled in both cases during the1976 term. He found for the plaintiffs and agreed that the at-large electionsdiluted minority voting strength and ordered a mayor-council government beimplemented by 1977. These plans were halted however when the City of Mobileappealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The defendants in the Brown case acquiesced to Pittmans ruling and divided the school board intofive districts, resulting in the election of two African American school boardmembers in 1978. The men were met with hostility by other board members. By1977, action in Bolden, Brown, and Birdie Mae Davis hadevolved into a complex web of litigation. James Blacksher, Larry Menefee, andGreg Stein, the three white lawyers in the Crawford Firm, left to form theirown practice to deal specifically with the civil rights cases that VernonCrawford and the League had initiated over the last fifteen years.

 

The Bolden case resulted in similar suits during the late 1970s in Hattiesburg,Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jackson, Tennessee. The cases suffereda significant setback on April 22, 1980 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Bolden case. In a 6-3 decision, the court stated that in order to establish aviolation of the Voting Rights Act, the plaintiffs had to show evidence ofintent to discriminate. Until such evidence could be produced, the Bolden case remained on hold. In early May 1980, Mobile School Boardpresident Dan Alexander dismissed both African American board members, statingthat the precedent that secured their election was no longer valid. Four yearspassed before they were allowed to return.

 

Between the SupremeCourt ruling and the second phase of the Bolden case, racerelations in Mobile continued to deteriorate. Two months before the trialresumed, a nineteen-year old named Michael Donald was kidnapped by two Klansmenand murdered. The Klansmen took Donalds body and hung it from a tree indowntown Mobile, in retaliation for the acquittal of an African American manfor killing a white police officer. The Donald lynching outraged MobilesAfrican American community. The incident drew national attention and JesseJackson came to Mobile to lead protests. During a speech, Jackson noted thatthe real crime was the political lynching that had occurred in Mobile since1911 by the discriminatory form of government. A few months after the murder,Mobile reelected all three incumbent commissioners in the face of a finalruling in the Bolden case.

 

During the secondtrial, new evidence emerged. In 1909, a United States Congressman from Mobilesdistrict had sent an open letter to the Mobile Register in support ofthe proposed at-large commission. The letter ended with an admonition that theat-large government could effectively control and exclude the African Americanvote. Similar letters were uncovered and proved sufficient evidence for JudgePittman, who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on April 15, 1982. City officialschose not to appeal the ruling and agreed to a settlement which included a newform of government. A referendum was held in April 1985 where Mobile votersapproved the mayor-council form of government. In July, the first AfricanAmerican representatives in the city since Reconstruction and the first femalerepresentatives in the citys history were elected. In 2004, Sam Jones becameMobiles first African American mayor.

 

The Bolden case had ramifications far beyond Mobile. The Supreme Courts rulingagainst the plaintiffs in 1980 reenergized civil rights activists in Congressto revise the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the measure was reauthorized in1982, James Blacksher testified before Congress. Congress amended Section 2 ofthe Voting Rights Act to state that if a voting practice has the effect, notnecessarily the intent, of discrimination, then it is invalid. In Mobile, WileyBolden was heralded as a courageous lifetime advocate of civil rights. He waspresent at the first commission meeting in 1986 and received a standing ovationfrom the commissioners. The ninety-three year old activist was a finalist for theNAACP Spingarm Award for African American Achievement. He died in February1987.

 

After theconclusion of the Bolden case, Vernon Crawford retired from hislegal practice of thirty years and, at the insistence of several prominentAfrican American business leaders, ran for a place on the new city council in1985. Crawford suffered a stroke during the campaign and died in January 1986.He is remembered as a pioneer litigator in civil rights cases.

 

In 1989, theUniversity of South Alabama Archives received the Blacksher, Menefee, and SteinCollection, including materials on Birdie Mae Davis, Brown v. Moore, and Bolden v. City ofMobile. In 2005, Vernon Crawfordswidow donated his legal and personal papers, which comprise one of the fewcollections devoted primarily to an African American lawyer in the south. Themicroform edition assembled here by Primary Source Media from the holdings ofthe University of South Alabama Archives represents a significant contributionto the history of the legal battle for civil rights in the south. As thescholarship of the civil rights movement continues to evolve, the study ofcommunity organizations and activities become more important for understandingthe struggle for racial change. Scholars of school desegregation and politicalhistory will find much new material in the collection. The three major casesrepresented here provide insight into how local issues affected nationalpolicy. This microform edition further compliments Civil Rights and SocialActivism in Alabama, which includes the papers of John LeFlore and theNon-Partisan Voters League, adding to the rich and uncharted history of theGulf Coasts role in the civil rights movement and the legal battle for civilrights in Alabama.

 

Clarence L. Mohr
Professor of History
University of South Alabama

 

Scotty E. Kirkland
University of South Alabama

 

 

EDITORIAL NOTE

 

Organization and Format

 

The Legal Battlefor Civil Rights in Alabamais comprised of two parts:

 

Part 1: VernonZ. Crawford Records, 1958-1978: Civil Rights Cases (6 reels) consists of Series III and SeriesIV from the original collection at the University of South Alabama Archives.

 

Part 2:Selections from the Blacksher, Menefee and Stein Records (37 reels) includes thefollowing cases from the BMS Collection: Bolden v. City of Mobile; Brown v.Moore;and BirdieMae Davis et al. v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County.

 

Selection Process

 

Theselection of materials for the microform edition of The Legal Battle for Civil Rights in Alabamawas based onthe following:

 

Privacy
Some materials could not be microfilmed for reasons of confidentiality. In theinterest of protecting the privacy of individuals, a concerted effort was madeto exclude records that contained peoples home addresses, phone numbers,Social Security numbers, or personal financial information. Resumes were notfilmed.

 

Rarity
Some printedmaterials, such as commonly held government reports or court documents, wereexcluded because they can be found in many libraries. Examples of materials notfilmed include Supreme Court and Court of Appeals documents, as well as entirefolders of newspaper clippings.

 

Notice of Unfilmed Materials

 

Files excluded in theirentirety are listed in this collection guide and denoted with a not filmed. Allunfilmed materials are available to researchers who use the collection on siteat the University of South Alabama Archives.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

This project would nothave been possible without assistance from many individuals. Primary SourceMedia wishes to thank the staff of the University of South Alabama Archives inMobile, Alabama, for accommodating the preparation and scanning operation whilethe archive continued to serve researchers. PSM extends gratitude to Dr.Michael Thomason, former director of the USA Archives and archivist CarolEllis, for their support of the project. The smooth operation of this projectis due in no small part to Thomas Ashby, for his dedication to the task ofphysical preparation and selection of all the materials in this edition. Wealso wish to thank Dr. Clarence Mohr and Scotty E. Kirkland of the Universityof South Alabama for graciously writing an outstanding and knowledgeableintroduction to the collection and microfilm edition.