The Speech That Shocked Birmingham the Day After the Church Bombing

I suppose it was inevitable that a smart young man interested in law and politics would pass the decade of the 1950s in Alabama at the center of a constant storm of racial tension. And 1954 clearly was the dividing line. Before it there were the deplorable conditions that generated the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After it there was the virulent opposition that the ruling generated in the South. What did Morgan say he learned during this tumultuous time? That voices of moderation must have the courage to speak up—or accept the pain of being left out.

Yesterday while Birmingham, which prides itself on the number of its churches, was attending worship services, a bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action, a police force which has been praised by city officials and others at least once a day for a month or so. A police force which has solved no bombings. A police force which many Negroes feel is perpetrating the very evils we decry. And why would Negroes think this?

He got married. He became a lawyer. He was active in state and local politics. By 1958 he had his own firm. And through this era, of Citizens Councils and Little Rock, he struggled to reconcile his love of the South with his aversion to its racism, his loyalty to Birmingham with his frustration at its opposition to integration. What he learned during this time in both law and politics, he would later say, was that the topic of race was a trap and that "every white man in Alabama was caught up in it."

There are no Negro policemen; there are no Negro sheriff's deputies. Few Negroes have served on juries; few have been allowed to vote; few have been allowed to accept responsibility, or granted even a simple part to play in the administration of justice. Do not misunderstand me. It it not that I think that white policemen had anything whatsoever to do with the killing of these children or previous bombings. It's just that Negroes who see an all-white police force must think in terms of its failure to prevent or solve the bombing and think perhaps Negroes would have worked a little harder. They throw rocks and bottles and bullets. And we whites don't seem to know why the Negroes are lawless. So we lecture them.

In 1960, The New York Times' correspondent Harrison Salisbury wrote a flammable piece on Birmingham titled "Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham. In a tone Morgan would echo three years later, Salisbury wrote of the city: "Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." Furious, Alabama officials quickly sued the Times for libel.

Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham who have done so little for Christianity call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city's "image." Did those ministers visit the families of the Negroes in their hour of travail? Did many of them go to the homes of their brothers and express their regrets in person or pray with the crying relatives? Do they admit Negroes into their ranks at the church?

The libel lawsuit (remember, this was before the Supreme Court issued New York Times v. Sullivan, a decision that broadened first amendment protections for journalists) immediately impacted Morgan. He was asked to represent the Rev. Robert L. Hughes, a white Methodist minister who was a director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, a group designed to act as a liaison between the white and black communities in Birmingham. Hughes had been served a subpoena to produce the records of all those who supported the council. And he had decided to fight the request.

Who is guilty? A moderate mayor elected to change things in Birmingham and who moves so slowly and looks elsewhere for leadership? A business community which shrugs its shoulders and looks to the police or perhaps somewhere else for leadership? A newspaper which has tried so hard of late, yet finds it necessary to lecture Negroes every time a Negro home is bombed? A governor who offers a reward but mentions not his own failure to preserve either segregation or law and order? And what of those lawyers and politicians who counsel people as to what the law is not, when they know full well what the law is?

Representing Rev. Hughes immediately made Morgan the target of the Klan. Its members accosted him in a courthouse at a hearing. There were anonymous nighttime phone calls. "How come you'd represent that nigger-lover Hughes?" he would be asked. "You better watch out, tough guy. Some night we'll get you alone." The experience made Morgan realize that he and Hughes, that all moderates seeking to foster equal rights in the South at that time, were "in the same boat." Whether he had wanted to or not, he had chosen a side.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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