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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Charles Morgan -- Civil Rights Crusader, Passes Away at Age 78

By Keith R. Schmitz

It is rare, especially lately, when you hear of someone living his life courageously as Charles Morgan Jr. Morgan recently died Alzheimer's disease.

I got to know his son Charles Morgan III in Destin, FL. They are a little short on Democrats down there but Charley is someone who has put the 50 state strategy in action locally before Howard Dean made it happen across the country. Last year he had Bill Clinton down for a fund raiser at his "Harbor Docks" restaurant and raised $100,000.

Then there is his father who had the guts to fight Birmingham's segregationist leaders in the early 1960s. This was a time when people who stood up to the establishment lost there businesses or had worse happen to them. Morgan, by the way, was white.

In an Alabama reapportionment case known as Reynolds vs. Sims, he won a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required voting districts to be equal in population, a blow to the political power of rural legislators who until then dominated the statehouse.

The case was one of a handful that made the "one man, one vote" principle part of federal law and protected the political voice of voters in growing urban centers.

A University of Alabama Law School graduate, Morgan did political battle against Eugene "Bull" Connor and Birmingham's segregationist leadership early on, condemning the city's failures in a widely reported civic club speech after a 1963 church bombing killed four black girls.

According to Julian Bond, current chairman of the NAACP's national board, "(Morgan) was a giant who remade the South through the courtroom as Martin Luther King remade it through marching feet."

Morgan also defended Mohammed Ali against charges of draft evasion.

Early in Morgan's career, he publicly deplored racial injustice and represented indigent blacks at no cost in his spare time while working at a corporate law firm in Birmingham. Then, in September 1963, the day after four young black girls died in the firebombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Morgan took the podium at the Young Men's Business Club.

"We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry, and stand indicted before our young," he said. "We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution. . . . Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty as the demented fool who threw the bomb.

"Who did it? Who threw that bomb? The answer should be, 'We all did it.' "

The community reaction was swift and brutal. Crosses were burned on his lawn, polite society shunned him, and he received anonymous death threats. He eventually moved his family out of the city.

It is sad that acts of courage such as this have to be regarded as exceptional.

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