September 16, 1963 – Civil Rights Lawyer Charles Morgan, Jr. Delivers Speech on the Meaning of the Birmingham, Alabama Church Bombing

Charles Morgan Jr., born in 1930, graduated from the University of Alabama, where he also received a law degree in 1955. A white man, he became a civil rights lawyer who won numerous landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He opened the American Civil Liberties Union’s Atlanta office in 1964 and became legislative director of the ACLU’s national office in Washington in 1972, defending some of the most controversial cases of the 1960s and 1970s. His most important case was the”one-man, one-vote” ruling he won in 1964 in Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533), which forced the Alabama legislature to create districts that were equal in population, giving black voters a better chance to elect candidates.

Charles “Chuck” Morgan, Jr.

Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center said [a bit optimistically, as it turned out] that the Reynolds case “was the death knell for voting discrimination in the South.”

Morgan also forced Alabama to integrate its prisons; successfully challenged the Southern practice of barring women and blacks from jury duty; and represented Julian Bond when the Georgia General Assembly tried to prevent the newly elected legislator from taking his seat after he spoke out against the Vietnam War. He also appealed the draft evasion conviction of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who opposed the Vietnam War on religious grounds. [Morgan handled the appeal in district and appellate courts; he did not argue the case before the Supreme Court, where Mr. Ali was represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Chauncey Eskridge and others argued the case there, and the Court ruled in Mr. Ali’s favor in 1971. Nevertheless, ever ignorant of history, in June, 2018, President Trump said he was considering pardoning Ali.]

Muhammad Ali has a “no comment” as he is confronted by newsmen as he leaves the Federal Building in Houston during the noon recess of court, June 19, 1967. (Ed Kolenovsky, Associated Press)

But perhaps the most seminal moment in Morgan’s career came on this day in history. On September 16, 1963, the day after four young black girls were killed in the firebombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Mr. Morgan took the podium at the Birmingham’s Young Men’s Business Club to deliver his most famous speech, saying:

“We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry, and stand indicted before our young. 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.'”

Charles Morgan, Jr. on the left and the victims of the church bombing on the right

He later recalled:

“I was mad as hell. I made a speech I’d written that morning. When I got through, everyone applauded, and someone moved to admit a Negro to membership in the club. Like everything else in Birmingham, it died for want of a second.”

The Atlantic reported:

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.”

Reflecting on what happened later, Morgan stated he did not feel that moderates in the South could be expected to be a powerful force for change. As he told The Harvard Crimson:

The fiction of the Northern liberal that the Southern moderate is going to rise up and speak out is silly. . . . A Northern liberal lawyer in the cool 4:30 comfort of his Madison Avenue bar says, ‘Why don’t you stay there and fight?’ Then that same lawyer will send his Southern business to a firm all of whose partners are racists, and, rationalize it by saying: ‘We want a firm that will win.’”

Morgan added:

When the federal government starts sending in registrars and enforcing the laws already on the books, when the North accepts the social responsibility that goes with the ownership of all the corporate wealth in the South, when Harvard and all the Harvards take the stewardship of their Southern investments as a social concern that is equal to their concern for the education of young men–that’s when someone in the South who’s a normal human being wedded to his hometown will be able to take the stances that are necessary to achieve change.”

In 1977, Morgan left the ACLU to go into private practice. As the New York Times related the story, Morgan experienced a growing disaffection with the national headquarters, which came to a boil in 1976:

‘At a Washington party, a New York liberal told him that he opposed Jimmy Carter of Georgia for president because, he said, ‘I could never vote for anybody with a Southern accent.’ Mr. Morgan replied, ‘That’s bigotry, and that makes you a bigot.’ When the encounter was reported in The New York Times, Mr. Morgan was reprimanded by Aryeh Neier, the executive director of the A.C.L.U., and Mr. Morgan resigned.”

The lawyer who led an early movement to impeach President Richard M. Nixon then astounded his friends by representing former attorney general John N. Mitchell in an unsuccessful attempt to shorten his prison term. He also represented the Tobacco Institute in a fight against a municipal ordinance banning smoking in public places and corporate clients accused of discrimination.

Morgan died at age 78 from complications of advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

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