Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. "Is the mortician there yet?" a voice asked. "I don't know any morticians," Morgan responded. "Well, you will," the voice answered, "when the bodies are all over your front yard." Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. "They'll shoot you down like a dog," the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety.
"Chuck told me that he received a stream of threats both by telephone and letter for weeks after his speech," recalls Steve Suitts, the renowned author, scholar, and civil libertarian who was one of Morgan's longtime friends. "Once we discussed the anonymous threats that Alabama-born Justice Hugo Black received from white Southerners after the Brown decision, and a note I had found in Black's papers saying 'Nigger-lovers don't live long in Alabama.' Chuck smiled and said he got the very same language in a note after his speech in 1963.
"But, the threats that worried Chuck the most were those made against his wife, Camille, and his little boy, Charles," Suitts told me this week via email. "He once told me that he had received a note that he did not share with Camille or anyone else. It listed all the places that Camille and Charles had been on a recent Saturday and said something like, 'Wife and kid of a troublemaker ain't always getting home. Next time?' That one worried him the most, because it meant someone had actually followed his family all day."
What did he do when he left Alabama? A great deal. He led an extraordinarily vital life on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed and the accused. Here's how the Times, in its 2009 obituary of him, described the impact of Morgan's work upon the lay of the law:
Among his many cases as a civil rights lawyer, Mr. Morgan sued to desegregate his alma mater, the University of Alabama; forced a new election in Greene County, Ala., that led to the election of six black candidates for local offices in 1969; and successfully challenged racially segregated juries and prisons. After the civil rights movement began to subside, Mr. Morgan, as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought three celebrated court cases involving protests against the Vietnam War.
He represented Muhammad Ali in his successful court fight to avoid being drafted. He represented the civil rights activist Julian Bond in the early stages of an ultimately successful lawsuit after Mr. Bond had been denied a seat in the Georgia legislature because of his antiwar views. And he defended an officer when he was court-martialed for refusing to help instruct Green Berets headed for Vietnam.
But it is Suitts, who in many ways carries on the tradition of the Southern moderate, who deserves the last word as we approach the golden anniversary of this remarkable act of personal courage. Of Morgan, Suitts told me:
In many ways, Chuck took one of the key points in Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," written five months earlier, and extended it into the horrendous facts of the bombing. (Dr. King wrote: "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice... who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait.")
Chuck's speech carried this theme one step further by suggesting the white moderate was responsible for the worst of "disorder" as well as gross injustice ... by asking" Who is guilty?" of the bombing of innocent little girls and answering "Each of us!" - not the Klan, not the extremist whites but every white person in Birmingham...
There is no monument or commemoration of Chuck's "Time to Speak" in Birmingham. Last time I was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, I did not see any reference to Chuck's speech. Birmingham's Young Men's Business Club still remembers Chuck's speech occasionally, but it is not remembered all that often there or elsewhere in Birmingham.
There is probably more than one reason for this fact. The bombing - not Chuck's speech - was the event that rocked Birmingham and the nation. It is also very hard for anyone today, in Birmingham and elsewhere, to genuinely understand how often and how many good white people kept silent in the face of rank injustice and racial violence in the South during the era of Jim Crow.
In fact, in one of the last conversation Chuck and I had, we laughed about how difficult it is nowadays to find a Southern white family that does not claim having done at least one heroic act on their part to end racial injustice during the civil rights movement.