Archive for the 'Alabama' Category

Leah Rawls Atkins praises Mary Ann Neeley’s Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011 by Brian Seidman

The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery's First Historian, by Mary Ann Neeley

This review originally appeared in The Alabama Review: A Quarterly Journal of Alabama History, July 2011, Vol. 64, No. 3. Review by Leah Rawls Atkins, Auburn University.

The Works of Matthew Blue: Montgomery’s First Historian. Edited by Mary Ann Neeley. Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2010. xvi, 459 pp. $45.00. ISBN 978-1-58838-031-9.

Anyone researching a nineteenth-century Alabama topic that touches Montgomery must consult Matthew Blue. Before the appearance of Mary Ann Neeley’s edition of Blue’s works, this was difficult because copies were rare and fragile. Finding who or what you were interested in without a comprehensive index, understanding all the facts and events, knowing the family and political interrelations of the people whom Blue mentioned were impossible for most researchers. Significant nuances were surely missed by those of us not familiar with the history and people of Montgomery.

Neeley’s book places this history in easy reach with an index and copious annotations and notes. Blue’s text is in boldface type, and Neeley’s annotations follow in regular type. Her notes are placed by appropriate paragraphs on the outside margin of her book, which makes the scholarship easily accessible to the reader. Neeley, now retired, was the longtime director of the capital city’s living history museum, Old Alabama Town. She spent her life studying Montgomery, its people, and events. Taking more than a decade to complete the book, Neeley used numerous primary sources, especially the Blue family papers in the Alabma Department of Archives and History.

Matthew Blue was born in a log cabin on September 24, 1824, on the hill where the Alabama capitol now stands. He died in Montgomery on December 20, 1884. In his lifetime, Blue was a mail clerk, the city’s postmaster, the publisher and part-owner of the Montgomery Advertiser, a columnist for the Montgomery Daily Post, a coroner, and secretary of the state senate. Most of all, he knew everyone, was a keen observer of people and events, and he had a sense of the importance of recorded history.

Blue wrote an early history of Montgomery and compiled a list of events in the city, both included in the 1878 City Directory of Montgomery. His essay on church history was published in 1851, and his early study of the organization of the city’s churches was privately printed in 1878. Blue’s history and genealogy of the Blue family appeared in 1886, two years after Blue died. These works, along with the unpublished diary of Ellen Blue, are included in Neeley’s work. One strength of the book is the copious illustrations and photographs, which are fully explained in captions. The large number of names and the easy index will be an asset for genealogical and family researchers.

Blue’s descriptions of many historical events in Montgomery have been the authority for much that has made its way into modern articles and books — General Lafayette’s entrance into Montgomery on April 3, 1825, and his reception “on the hill upon which the State Capitol now stands”; the fire on December 14, 1849, that destroyed the first capitol building in Montgomery; the city as capitol of the Confederacy and Montgomery during the Confederate period.

Neeley’s edited and annotated volume of Blue’s works should be in major research libraries in the nation and included in most of Alabama’s public and academic collections. Collectors of Alabamiana will welcome this volume.

The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian, by Mary Ann Neeley, is available direct from NewSouth Books,, or your favorite book retailer.

Civil Rights Lawyer Charles Morgan Jr. Dies

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 by Randall Williams

Chuck Morgan, 78, one of the most colorful and powerful legal advocates for civil rights in the 1960s, died January 8, 2009, of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He “died peacefully at his Destin, Fla., home,” the local newspaper reported. I hope that was so, and if it was, then it was one of the few things Chuck ever did “peacefully.” He was a larger-than-life personality who not only recognized the injustices in society but did something about them. There’s a good story by Roy Reed in the New York Times about Chuck’s passing.

NewSouth’s author Bob Zellner also wrote movingly about Chuck in The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Here’s a passage from the book:

The everyday slog and the relentless work load could get us down, so spirits always soared when outside help arrived to reinforce what we already knew—that what we were doing was important and that the word was getting out up North. The joy was even greater when the help came from a progressive Southern lawyer, who by definition had to be both courageous and slightly crazy to get involved in civil rights cases. One such lawyer was the outspoken Charles Morgan Jr. from rough-tough Birmingham. Victor was already comfortable with our legal standing, assuring us that the Bill of Rights applied even in the primitive backwoods courts of darkest Alabama. What Big Chuck brought was joie de vivre and utter fearlessness. Chuck was not bashful about letting the courthouse thugs and hangers-on know that he was onto their game. He’d been to enough rural courtrooms in Alabama to know that the “Courthouse Gang” was there to prop up the powers that be by hanging around to whittle sticks, spit tobacco, and glare menacingly—we called it “the hate stare”—at outsiders or anybody else the sheriff and the judge didn’t like.

Morgan went about his work in Talladega with such gusto that we felt less stressed. After court we gathered around him in his tiny motel room as he spun hilarious yarns of past exploits. “The other day,” Chuck said, “I had to go down to Greene County—that’s in the Black Belt—where I’m defending a poor black man. I told Camille, my wife, I might not make it back if the rednecks down there know about me ranting up here in Birmingham against Bull Connor. When she asked if I really had to go, I told her yes, if this man is to escape spending the rest of his natural life in jail for just trying to register. ‘What’d they charge him with?’ my wife asked. I told her it was carnal knowledge of a chicken, a tough charge to defend against.”

From the center of his sagging bed Morgan would lean over and put down his sweating glass of iced bourbon and branch water. He’d grab the phone and call the respected journalist Claude Sitton at the New York Times. “Claude, I got a report from the front.” Pause. “What do you mean what front? It’s the only front that matters right now—Morgan defending Zellner, the Bradens, and now Rabinowitz and Madame Grant—nothing but me standing betwixt them and the benighted lawlessness of the Great State of Alabama! My favorite kind of story, Mr. Sitton.” Another pause. “Sir, it certainly is news that’s fit to print. You ought to be down here to see it for yourself, but since you ain’t, let me tell you about it in living color.” Sitton was an Atlantan and the NYT’s chief Southern correspondent. He reported widely on civil rights from 1958–64. Morgan’s bantering with him was partly for our entertainment and also to make sure that our activities would stay in the national focus, thus bringing additional support and some measure of protection.

Rabinowitz and Grant had been added to the injunction when they showed up for my hearing. By the second or third day of the hearing, Morgan and Rabinowitz, with help from another volunteer attorney, Arthur Kinoy (later a co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights), had prepared a countersuit against the state of Alabama, Talladega County, et al. That morning our group, led by Morgan, had woven our way through the usual crowd of whittlers and spitters outside the courthouse. Inside, Chuck motioned for me to follow him down the stairs. We marched into the basement where many county employees worked, and he announced loudly with a big smile, “Mr. Zellner and I have just accused all of y’all of being white.”

Most of the time things in SNCC were so hectic and our lawyers were so busy trying to keep us out of jail or getting us out of jail that there was no time for preparing proactive suits. In Talladega, however, we were lucky to have these feisty attorneys working for us. So when Morgan impishly accused all the county employees of being white, he was deadly serious. Our counter-injunction asked the federal government to ban segregated courtrooms, all-white juries, and all-white judges and sheriffs. Morgan and Rabinowitz asked that all proceedings against civil rights workers and black voter registration aspirants be removed to federal courts.

The very next morning our entry into the courthouse changed dramatically. As Chuck and I approached the front steps and the waiting courthouse gang, he simply pushed his seersucker jacket aside just enough to reveal a huge gun snugly nestled in a beautiful brown leather shoulder holster. The gang parted like the Red Sea for Moses, and we sailed peacefully into the courthouse. As it turned out, Chuck was friends with the sheriff and had cleared this ploy in advance, but at the time his only comment was, “Zellner, maybe you know how to be nonviolent and survive. My mama told me, ‘Son, walk loudly and carry a big piece.’”

We were sworn to nonviolence in all our public affairs, but . . . we were kicking ass in the courtroom and it seemed that Charles Morgan Jr., Esquire, of Birmingham, was prepared to kick it on the courthouse lawn if push came to shove.

And another passage from the same book:

Wallace and his prosecutors were delighted with the prospect of trying me on something other than the political charge of conspiracy. Conspiring to do what? They had no evidence of plans to demonstrate at Wallace’s inaugural. So their Plan B was to convict Zellner on a bad check charge and send him to the penitentiary for ten years. Maybe he wouldn’t survive the Alabama prison system!

Chuck Morgan assisted Clifford Durr at my trial. Clifford in frail health and was exhausted, and Morgan was always spoiling for a civil rights legal fight. I remember at one point coming out of the courtroom and I had a cigarette in my hand and my hands were cuffed in front of me, and the photographer was there, and I didn’t expect the photographer, so I smiled and he took the picture. Chuck told me later, “No matter if you are acquitted or convicted or there’s a hung jury, never smile when you come out of the courtroom, because you weren’t supposed to be arrested to begin with.”

When they took me to the jail, I guess it was the same jail Rosa Parks had been in, and Martin Luther King, and even Hank Williams a time or two. One of my classmates from Huntingdon was the brand new jailer. The newsmen interviewed him, and they asked how it felt to lock up his old classmate, Bob Zellner. I wasn’t treated badly at all.

Cliff and Chuck had a good defense for the all-white, mostly male Montgomery jury. The prosecution said that I had purchased a camera for $85 from the pawn shop on Friday afternoon. Because I traveled so much, my SNCC paycheck was automatically deposited in Atlanta each week. The police wouldn’t let Mr. Erlich, the shop owner, deposit my check. Instead, the cops called the bank in Atlanta to see what my checking account balance was and were told that at the moment there was less than $85. But they were also told that the bank knew the account and knew that a deposit was made each Friday. The bank said the check would be honored. Nevertheless, that was the state’s case against me.

“The check,” Mr. Durr argued, “could not be evidence of false pretenses since it was never presented for payment, nor was it ever returned for insufficient funds.” The prosecutors could not have it both ways. In closing arguments, Morgan marched his ample frame up and down in front of the hometown jury, waxing homespun as he asked each juror, “How many times have you, or your spouse, bought groceries on Friday based on the family paycheck that was to be deposited that afternoon?”

Then in summation, Clifford Durr, as courtly a Southern gentleman as anyone ever saw, rail thin in his crisp seersucker suit and bending slightly forward because of his bad back, delivered the final blow. He asked the jurors, “How would you feel if the Governor or the police were mad at you and took the check out of your grocer’s hand, called your bank and then tried to put you in jail for ten years because someone at the bank said you didn’t have enough money?”

However, long before Cliff drove these last nails into the coffin of Wallace’s case against me, Chuck had done something in open court that determined the outcome of the trial. It is rare that the opening shot is the one that decides the battle, but that is what happened. We had spent weeks asking the progressive ministers of the conference and their wives to attend my trial in support of a fellow Methodist in trouble because of an issue of conscience. We had asked them to be prepared to be called as character witnesses.
Mrs. Francis McLeod, the grande dame of Alabama Methodists and the mother of a brood of charismatic and successful preachers in our conference, agreed to lead the charge against the state for trying to imprison me for ten years. This famous Methodist momma was the mother of Dad’s best friend, Reverend Fletcher McLeod. Another son, Powers McLeod, was everybody’s pick to be bishop someday.

Chuck’s simple but brilliant maneuver, as the judge gaveled the crowded court session to order, caught everybody off guard. He stood and addressed the judge, “Your Honor, there are several preachers here with their wives who are character witnesses for my client, Mr. Bob Zellner. Mr. Durr and I have not had the opportunity to interview all of them. In the interest of saving the time of the court, if it please your honor, would you ask for them to stand so we may identify Mr. Zellner’s character witnesses? I don’t know how many of them are here.”

Before the prosecutor could object and before the judge realized he was being poleaxed in his own courtroom, the judge asked the character witnesses to stand. Almost the entire audience stood up. Case closed.

Black Belt civil rights pioneer Hulett passes

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006 by Randall Williams

John Hulett, the first black office holder in one of the historic Black Belt counties of Alabama, and the co-founder of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, died August 21 at his home in Mosses, Alabama. He was 78 and had been in poor health for several years.

Lowndes County was and is one of the poorest counties in the U.S., despite being adjacent to the state capital. The county lies between Dallas and Montgomery counties and in 1965 the famous Selma to Montgomery march passed through Lowndes. Civil rights martyrs Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels were both murdered in Lowndes, and prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was not a single registered black voter in the county, though the population was 80 percent African American.

Hulett and his fellow activists in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization took their lives in their hands every day to challenge both state power and the unofficial terror of the Ku Klux Klan. But they prevailed, and the black panther they chose as their ballot symbol in Alabama elections was an inspiration to Stokeley Carmichael and other young activists who poured into the Black Belt to help Hulett and others register voters in the mid-1960s. The symbol was later adopted by the founders of the Black Panther Party.

Visitors to Hulett’s small office in the Lowndes Courthouse after he had become sheriff were startled to see hanging on his wall a vicious-looking wood-handled whip that he had inherited with the office. He kept it there, he said, as reminder that it had been used by his predecessors to beat Lowndes’ blacks for years. As sheriff for two decades, Hulett himself often did not wear a gun, and the county was so small and so poor that he often cooked the jail inmates’ meals himself.

Later he also won election as the first African American probate judge in the county, and he mentored a generation of Alabama black office holders who followed in his footsteps. Today, thanks to the gains of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama has more elected black officials than any state in the union.

He is to be buried Saturday, August 26, 2006.