It had been almost five decades since Clemon first stood in front of Lynne. His hair has thinned and turned white; his stride, slower. He has traded the army-surplus suits for finer Brooks Brothers threads. In a city once so hostile to black civil rights that it earned the nickname Bombingham, two streets now bear his name. But a circle returns to its beginning, and so, as is almost always the case when it comes to race in America, the victories would not be complete, nor would they be permanent. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to schools.
Nationally, black children are more segregated today than they were a half century ago, in part because mostly-white well-off communities are separating themselves from diverse and poorer school systems. And so Clemon decided to volunteer as a lawyer on the Gardendale case. Of course, his old adversary, Judge Lynne, was long gone, as was Pointer.
So was the judge who rubber-stamped the other recent secessions. Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala now presided over the case. Haikala was appointed by Obama three years earlier and had already made an impression on civil rights lawyers and activists. Haikala declined to be interviewed. Gardendale called to the stand organizers of the effort.
Chris Lucas, who works in banking and now sits on the Gardendale school board, moved to Gardendale after he had his first child because he could not afford the wealthier Birmingham suburbs that had already formed their own school systems. Lucas said he had always figured he and his wife would move when their children became school-age. But then, he started having conversations with Salters, his friend, and others about how they did not want to leave and maybe they should do what those other communities had done.
Those who wanted to break off had some legitimate complaints about their schools — in some cases, children attended classes in trailers because of overcrowding, roofs sometimes leaked, textbooks could be in short supply and technology was too often outdated and broken. In court transcripts of the trial, it is clear that several years after the secession effort began, Lucas and others struggled to come up with specific ways that forming their own school system would improve education for their community. But there is no evidence that smaller school districts are better.
In addition, if Gardendale activists were focused only on the quality of the education, they would be concerned that Gardendale students who now have access to one of the best schools in the nation, an International Baccalaureate school in a nearby town, would have to pay out-of-district tuition to attend the school, if Gardendale broke off. He asked Lucas if he knew that there were plenty of small city districts that performed poorly.
The average household size was 2. Born July 28, to Keith K. But instead of ruling on the objection, Judge Haikala restated the question directly to the witness. Perennial discussions and attempts to separate the west half from the east half gained little support during the twentieth century. Search Obituaries by State and City.
Kymiyah Reeves is a shy girl who lives in North Smithfield and did not know anything about the nearly-half-century-old desegregation order that gave her the right to attend Bragg Middle School in Gardendale. Petite, with mahogany skin and her hair in a swirl of braids, the year-old liked her school and she liked her teachers.
But her grandparents, Rickey and Alene Reeves, who adopted her in , did. Unlike most of the younger parents lined up on the Gardendale side, the couple were old enough to have a long view of the school system and the fight for equality. He thought about how his wife had lived two blocks from the nice, white high school, but how, carrying her books, he walked her each day two miles to the broken-down black school.
He reflected on how his own school got only hand-me-down textbooks that were no longer good enough for white children. He mused about how although he and his wife graduated more than a decade after the heady and hopeful days following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling , neither of them experienced the integration they were promised by the Supreme Court. He and his wife had to battle against discrimination their entire lives, and they watched as many of the gains they fought for have eroded.
Racism had gone underground but not away. Reeves marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday in to achieve voting rights, only to watch decades later as the Supreme Court used a case from his home state to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which the march had helped secure. As school systems across the South and the nation have resegregated, the Reeveses understood that the federal court order from was the only reason their own children, and now their grandchild, were able to attend integrated schools.
Rickey Reeves anxiously waited for Clemon and the other lawyers representing the plaintiffs to make their case. Their argument was simple. Clemon had helped establish a precedent that secessions were not permissible if they undermined court-ordered desegregation. Judges had looked the other way and allowed other towns to leave. But if Gardendale seceded, it would take with it a substantial number of the white students left in the Jefferson County school district, and most likely more, if it annexed additional white communities as others had done.
The fewer white children who remained in the system, the harder desegregation would become. The Legal Defense Fund also argued that it was racism, not the desire for local control, that was behind the secession effort. They pointed to a Facebook page that Focus activists had created. Those students do not contribute financially. They consume the resources of our schools, our teachers and our resident students, then go home. Secession supporters had argued that their tax dollars should go to educate their own children instead of children who lived outside their community, that their shared responsibility stretched no further than the arbitrary borders of their town, even though for the vast history of the state, black taxpayers paid for white schools that their own children could not attend.
The activists did not acknowledge that the public schools in Gardendale do not belong to Gardendale. They are paid for by the tax dollars of the entire county, including the parents of black children bused in. Instead, the conversations among Gardendale activists revolved around whether the town should annex Mount Olive so that its children would remain in the system. Mount Olive is 98 percent white. The lawyers for the black children of Jefferson County laid out a chronology that showed that when Gardendale secession advocates started working on secession, they assumed that breaking off would allow them to exclude from their schools all black children from outside Gardendale, including the children in North Smithfield.
The new district would have to include North Smithfield after all. The two men were of the same generation and had seen many of the same things. Reeves chose the armed services. In a Black Belt accent clipped by the precision of the military, he talked about serving in the Air Force in Vietnam and then joining the National Guard, where he retired as a senior master sergeant after 24 years.
Reeves spent his whole life serving his country and his community, and now, like Clemon, he found himself in his twilight years, doing it again. This fight was not for his family.
We have to draw a line in the sand and stop it. And so Clemon, first as a lawyer, then as a judge and then as a lawyer again, knew how hard it was, especially these days, to prove the racial motivations of people who knew enough to keep them hidden.
The gallery peered on with interest. But most important for the defense, she is black. Court transcripts show Rowe expertly led her through her testimony. She moved to Gardendale 16 years ago because it was a quiet and older community. Standing, he looked at her and gave her a warm smile. Clemon knew the witness — each Sunday they sat near each other during services at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham.
His questions highlighted her experience with desegregation as one of the three black students allowed into a white high school in Aliceville, Ala. Then, casually, he turned to the fact that she had applied to sit on the Gardendale school board but had not been selected. What Clemon and everyone in the courtroom knew very well was that the all-white City Council had appointed an all-white school board. Miller told me later that when Gardendale announced the new board, she was dismayed to learn that only one of its members had any experience in K education — a teacher who had worked directly under Miller during her tenure as a principal.
Do you know of any reason which would justify your not being chosen other than your race? But instead of ruling on the objection, Judge Haikala restated the question directly to the witness. Gardendale then called the newly appointed superintendent, Patrick Martin, to testify. Gardendale had hired him away from a small, nearly all-white school system in rural Illinois.
Under questioning from a Department of Justice lawyer, Martin said that he had not read the school desegregation order until a few months earlier, and he later acknowledged that he declined to meet with concerned black parents from North Smithfield. Eventually, Martin admitted a fact that surprised many in the courtroom: In nearly two decades as an educator, Martin had never hired a single black person for any position, nor worked with a single black teacher.
It was late in a day that had felt very long, and everyone wanted to go home. When Haikala returned to the bench, she turned to Martin, the superintendent, and asked a simple question:.
Haikala handed him a copy. If Gardendale won, Martin would oversee a school system located in the very cradle of the Confederacy, one that is still under a school-desegregation order. Martin fumbled a bit, struggling to describe what is considered by many the most important Supreme Court ruling of the 20th century, the ruling at the center of why they were all gathered in the courtroom that day. She then proceeded to go through the ruling.
She voiced concern about the black students that Gardendale residents had talked so openly of excluding, emphasizing how the justices in Brown struck down segregation in large part because it stigmatized and demeaned black children. For the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. I had never in my lifetime seen a judge read Brown in court, and I am more than threescore and Clemon lives in a palatial home, with an elevator and his named etched in the cornerstone, perched atop a hill in a gated subdivision overlooking Birmingham.
The house stands a few miles and a world away from the two-room wood-frame house of his childhood, where each night he squeezed between his four brothers and a cousin on two twin beds pushed together. Clemon himself is eminently dignified — he wore a suit for our interview in his home — but decades of fighting for the equal rights of black people have given him a wry sense of humor about the racism he has faced. He loves telling stories of his legal tussles with the good old boys, punctuating them with a laugh that comes out like a wheeze. Sometimes it is dizzying to imagine how far he has come.