Archive for the 'Civil Rights' Category

Legendary civil rights attorney Solomon Seay Jr. leaves legacy in passing

Thursday, September 24th, 2015 by Randall Williams

Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights LawyerCivil rights attorney Solomon S. Seay Jr. of Montgomery has died at age 84. Seay was the son of the Reverend Solomon S. Seay, a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the architects of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The younger Seay graduated from Howard University Law School and opened his law office in Montgomery in 1957, shortly after the end of the boycott, just in time to play a key role in the escalating battles against Jim Crow segregation in education, housing, public accommodations, and other areas. Over the next half-century, attorney Seay, often in collaboration with his longtime law partner Fred D. Gray and/or the NAACP, ACLU, and other civil rights groups, won landmark rulings in scores of legal cases.

Seay describes his work and shares his observations about the people and times in his eloquent and witty memoir, Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer (NewSouth, 2009).

Attorney Fred Gray, his friend and colleague, said, “Sol and I worked together in the practice of civil rights law for almost fifty years. He played a major role in most all of the civil rights cases I handled during that period of time. His first civil rights case, Gilmore v. City of Montgomery, desegregated the public parks of Montgomery, and he went on from there. What he did in the civil rights movement has been felt not only in Montgomery but also in the state of Alabama and the United States of America. Each of us should be proud of what he did for mankind. He will be sorely missed but never replaced.”

A large crowd, including friends and fellow lawyers and judges from across the nation, gathered at the Church of the Ascension on September 19 for a memorial service, with burial following in a local cemetery.

Jim Crow and Me is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Remembering Lynn Huntley, Southern Education Foundation president emerita

Friday, September 18th, 2015 by Randall Williams
Lynn Walker Huntley (courtesy Southern Education Foundation)

NewSouth Books joins the chorus of voices mourning the recent passing of Lynn Huntley, former president of the Southern Education Foundation. For two decades, Lynn brought effective, creative leadership to the SEF, which has long been a powerful force for improved education, better race relations, and greater understanding in our region.

SEF VP Steve Suitts (author of NewSouth’s Hugo Black of Alabama) directed us to this post on the Southern Education Foundation website that remembers Lynn and also includes an essay she wrote for the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia. Lynn’s essay, “A Message to the Next Generation,” is as timely today as it was when she wrote it for the youth conference in South Africa in 2001.

The SEF post also included a link to a video of Lynn speaking to the first class of the Southern Education Leadership Initiative (SELI), which we’ve embedded below.

Remembering Julian Bond

Monday, August 17th, 2015 by Brian Seidman

NewSouth Books mourns the untimely loss of our friend and noted civil rights leader Julian Bond, who died over the weekend at age 75. Bond was one of the organizers of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), President Emeritus of the Southern Poverty Law Center, national chairman of the NAACP, a longtime Georgia state senator, a founder of the Institute for Southern Studies, a distinguished professor of history, and an internationally known lecturer, writer, and commentator. Bond wrote forewords and commentary for several NewSouth titles, including the autobiography of fellow SNCC member Bob Zellner, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek.

Bond is pictured in March 2015 with NewSouth editor-in-chief Randall Williams (left) and Will Campbell, an attorney from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during a bus tour Williams was narrating of civil rights sites in Montgomery and Lowndes County. This was part of a civil rights study tour that Bond and his wife, Pamela Horowitz, hosted for the University of Virginia each spring. Horowitz, Williams, and Campbell were staffers at the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1970s, while Bond was SPLC president.

“Julian was unusual among civil rights leaders in that he was an intellectual first and an activist second, more inclined to analysis than agitation, and more comfortable influencing opinion than making news, though he did plenty of the latter, too,” said Williams. “He never wavered from his principled stands. He was steadfastly against war, injustice, and poverty, and passionately for peace, human dignity, and equality of opportunity. And even though he was an accomplished historian, he paid close attention to popular culture, and he was always the best-informed, smartest, and funniest person in the room. He left us far too soon, and we will miss him more than we realize even in our grief of the moment.”

Randall Williams, Julian Bond, and Will Campbell, on a civil rights study tour for the University of Virginia

Remembering Guy Carawan, civil rights activist and folk singer

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 by Lisa Harrison
Guy and Candie Carawan, authors of Sing for Freedom. (Courtesy Patheos)

Civil rights activist and folk singer Guy Carawan died on May 3 after a long illness. Guy and his wife Candie co-authored Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, published by NewSouth Books in 2007.

Carawan was perhaps best known for introducing the song “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement. In a tribute to the musician, National Public Radio featured excerpts from an archived story on the song. Carawan recalled learning the piece from a musician who performed it with guitar accompaniment. But when Carawan performed it with guitar for student activists, they had another idea:

“And then at a certain point, those young singers who knew a lot of a cappella styles – they said, lay that guitar down, boy. We can do the song better [laughter]. And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it – a style that some very powerful young singers got behind spread.”

ABC News spoke with Candie Carawan, who told them, “Guy very peacefully slipped away. When you know somebody is on their way, it was really the best way to go, and I was very grateful that was how it was.”

Guy Carawan’s legacy will continue through the Highlander Research and Education Center with which he was closely associated, and the song that continues to be performed 55 years after he taught it to young activists.

Sing For Freedom is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

The Week on Bob Zellner’s walk to protest demise of rural American healthcare

Thursday, April 30th, 2015 by Lisa Harrison

The USA edition of the British paper The Week featured Bob Zellner (pictured fourth from left) — author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, published by NewSouth Books — in a article on the partnership between a conservative and a progressive activist advocating on behalf of rural healthcare, an endangered species.

Democrat Zellner and his friend Adam O’Neal, the Reublican mayor of Belhaven, North Carolina, were interviewed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about an arduous and sometimes lonely two week-long walk from Belhaven to Washington, D.C. the pair made in the summer of 2014 to draw attention to the demise of rural hospitals caused by states’ refusals to expand Medicaid. The walk will be made again beginning June 1, with the men planning this time to be accompanied by 283 walkers representing the number of hospitals closed. More information on the walk is available at the Walk from NC to DC website.

The protest began when a Belhaven resident died waiting for transport to a hospital after the local hospital was closed due to lack of state funding.

The Week points out, “‘Critical access’ hospitals were established during the Truman administration to provide life-saving healthcare to America’s heartland, where people often find themselves too far removed from a regional hospital to receive timely treatment in an emergency. Because they do not see the volume of patients that have become the norm at major regional hospitals, these critical access hospitals often require federal subsidies to keep the doors open. This is nothing new; their existence has been a justified expense for millions of Americans since 1949.”

The Week adds, “For Zellner, this is a deadlock rooted in Southern history. He draws a direct connection between the civil rights marches of the 1960s and today’s Moral Movement in North Carolina, which has sided with Mayor O’Neal and the people of Belhaven.”

Bob Zellner has spent a lifetime working on behalf of the underprivileged. His life story from his years in SNCC to his current work is recounted in The Wrong Side of Murder Creek.

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Guy and Candie Carawan honored for lifetime of social justice cultural education

Monday, April 27th, 2015 by Lisa Harrison

Sing for Freedom by Guy and Candie Carawan

Guy and Candie Carwan, authors of Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, published by NewSouth Books, were honored recently by the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, McClung Historical Collection, and the Knox County Public Library with a celebration of their work for social justice. The program included a photography exhibit, showing of rare video footage from the civil rights era, and a musical performance.

The Carawans have been associated with the Highlander Research and Education Center, a leading social justice organization, since the 1950s, organizing cultural workshops and serving as consultants to the school. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, “the Carawans were almost the face of the center for many people.” The couple were popular folk musicians who adapted traditional songs with new lyrics about the civil rights struggle. These songs were collected into two collections, We Shall Overcome (1963) and Freedom is a Constant Struggle (1968), reprinted in a single edition by NewSouth Books in 2007.

The News Sentinel interviewed Candie Carawan in connection with the program showcasing their career.

The newspaper quoted Carwan, “We never sat down and plotted out, ‘Well, we’ll be working in the South for 35 years and doing all this documentary work. We just kind of took it year by year and followed our interests and in some ways followed the work that Highlander (Center) was doing. It just kind of added up to an interesting body of work and life of experiences.’

“‘You’ll get to this point, too, where you just cannot believe that much time has gone by and you’ve lived through these incredible periods of history. I think about the way the Civil Rights movement has been commemorated so much lately and it just doesn’t seem like 50 years ago, more than 50 years ago. Again, it’s just to have been so lucky. Both of us grew up in Southern California. How amazing is it that our paths crossed at Highlander and we were able to stay in the South and relate to so much incredible history that was going on?'”

Sing For Freedom is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Episcopal Journal recounts Anniston civil rights violence with Phil Noble

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015 by Brian Seidman

Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town by Phil NobleThe February 2015 edition of the Episcopal Journal offers a full-page feature on Reverend Phil Noble’s book Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town, and the events in Anniston, Alabama, that lead to the city’s formation of the Human Relations Council. With racial tension in the news and resurgent interest in the Civil Rights Movement with the release of the movie Selma, Noble’s first-hand account of the violence and reconciliation in his town remains required reading.

The Day1 religious blog also posted an excerpt from Noble’s book.

Noble was minister of Anniston’s First Presbyterian Church in 1961 when the Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston on their mission to end segregation. A mob surrounded their bus, and broke the windows, dragged out and beat the passengers, and set the bus on fire. In his book, Noble recalls that the reaction from the Anniston community was mixed. “Anniston had the capacity for racial violence that was equal to any other community in the South,” Noble writes. “Some felt the horror of the tragedy. Others said, ‘It’s too bad, but they got what they deserved.'”

The violence so alarmed Anniston’s religious, business, and political communities that they created the biracial Human Relations Council, with Noble appointed as the council chair. As the Episcopal Journal recounts, from Beyond the Burning Bus, Noble’s committee would vary their meeting times and locations for fear of those who disagreed.

“We would set a date and time for our next meeting, and then a half-hour or hour before the meeting I would call and tell members the place [to meet],” Noble writes. The group alternated between such locations as a church, the YMCA, a bank’s board room or the Chamber of Commerce. Because white and black members of the council were strangers to each other, Noble describes how he talked about the need for respect and for a sense of trust in how they dealt with one another. Eventually, Noble succeeded.

“The minister at Grace Episcopal Church told one of his members who was to serve later on the Human Relations Committee that we had gotten to a first-name basis, black and white,” Noble writes. “The member was indignant that there would be such familiarity, that blacks would call whites by their first names.”

Deeply entrenched customs pervaded the South then, and segregation still ruled. The council had mixed results in attempting to desegregate the city’s public buildings without incident or violence. An attempt to integrate the public library, undertaken with the approval of the library board, resulted in the beating of two black council members by a group of about 50 whites on the library steps. As the two attempted to flee by car, one was wounded by gunfire.

It is worth noting that, while the mayor and newly elected town commissioner supported the work of the biracial council, the police chief and most members of his force did not. Noble describes how thin a line the council members trod. “The black community thought we were going too slow, and the white community thought we were going too fast,” Noble says. “Our churches were no exception.

“One of the reasons for the success we had was that we were able for the most part to maintain that balance. We made enough progress so that the black community did not feel completely frustrated, and, at the same time, the progress was gradual enough so that the white community accepted it.”

Read the full Episcopal Journal book review at the link. You can also read an additional excerpt from Beyond the Burning Bus at

Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Dothan Eagle profiles Mac Otts’s compelling new memoir on race

Monday, January 26th, 2015 by Lisa Harrison

Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist by Mac Otts

The Dothan Eagle recently profiled S. M. “Mac” Otts, author of Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist in connection with Mr. Otts’s presentation at the Houston-Love Memorial Library. The feature recounts the story of a young man ready to assault civil rights protesters who grew to become the adoptive father of an interracial child, dedicated to improving relations between blacks and whites. The descendant of plantation slave owners, Otts was reared in the mentality of racism. His personal attitudes began changing during his college years. His memoir recounts an incredible transformation.

Speaking about race today, Otts told the Eagle:

“What if I’m a white person waiting in line at the grocery store to purchase groceries, and the person in front of me is counting coupons and I’m bothered,” Otts said. “If they’re black, is that different from if they’re white? There are a lot of remnants even with people who have overcome the primary thing of racism, and one of biggest reasons, I think, is we don’t communicate openly.”

The Mac Otts of 1965 probably wasn’t interested in talking out his issues.

Today’s Mac Otts wants others to realize how transformative honest discussions can be.

With Better Than Them Mac Otts offers a compelling contribution to the contemporary conversation on race.

Better Than Them: The Unmasking of an Alabama Racist is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Heaven and Earth Collide author Alan Cross quoted in Washington Post; book reviewed on Bill Tammeus’s Faith Matters blog

Friday, December 5th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus by Alan CrossAlan Cross, author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, was quoted recently in a Religion News Service article on current events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York that ran in papers across the country, most prominently in the Washington Post.

Cross was one of several important religious figures interviewed. Echoing the theme of his book, he noted that “what often happens when white evangelicals try to speak into this is that we continue to think first in terms of our own position. We should consider what people in the black community are saying, what are they going through, what is their experience.”

When Heaven and Earth Collide also recently received an excellent review on Bill’s ‘Faith Matters’ Blog by Bill Tammeus. In a piece that compares Evangelical support of racial segregation to other “subversions of Christianity” throughout history, Tammeus says that When Heaven and Earth Collide “is a necessary book by a man steeped in the white evangelical tradition but willing to expose what went wrong there. It would be easy for Christians in a different tradition to call down shame on those white Southerners for their failures, but every tradition has its own failures that need this kind of intense scrutiny so they don’t continue into the future.”

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus is an important contribution to the discussion of relations between the races from a Gospel perspective. It’s available from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

Commemorating the End of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 by Randall Williams
Sheriff's booking photo of Rosa Parks (Associated Press)

Sheriff’s booking photo of Rosa Parks (Associated Press)

Today, November 13, in 1956 was Day 345 in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was also the day that the boycotters won victory in their struggle that began after the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955. The boycott began four days later, on December 5, 1955, on the morning of the day that she was to be tried in Montgomery city court on misdemeanor charges of violating the city law that said that blacks and whites had to sit in segregated sections on local buses.

She was tried and was convicted and fined $10 and $4 in court costs. Her lawyer, Fred D. Gray, announced that he would appeal her case, which he did. But Mrs. Parks’s misdemeanor conviction was mooted when the U.S. Supreme Court on November 13, 1956, affirmed a lower-court decision that the Montgomery bus seating law was unconstitutional. That lower-court ruling, based on the principle established in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was written by U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. for a three-judge panel consisting of himself and U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Rives and Seybourne Lynne. Rives, a Montgomerian, concurred in Johnson’s opinion; Lynne, of Birmingham, dissented.

City and state officials in Montgomery refused to accept Johnson’s ruling and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the case involved a constitutional conflict between state and federal law, it was a direct appeal to the Supreme Court without passing first through the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; that was also why the original case was heard by a three-judge panel rather than by Johnson alone.

Alabama Attorney General John Patterson and Montgomery City Attorney Walter Knabe represented the City of Montgomery. Fred Gray, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter of the national NAACP, and Charles Langford, the only other black lawyer in Montgomery besides Gray at the time, represented the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs, by the way, did not include Rosa Parks. Gray had decided her criminal case needed to be kept separate from the civil lawsuit against the segregation laws themselves. So the four black women who became Fred Gray’s clients and actually sued the city were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith — all had been previously arrested and convicted on the same charge as Mrs. Parks.

The Supreme Court did not hear Montgomery’s appeal; it simply affirmed, on the basis of the lower-court record and the briefs in the case, the lower court’s ruling.

News of the Supreme Court decision reached Montgomery instantly, but the City of Montgomery, intransigent to the end, did not immediately end the segregated bus seating. That moment did not come for another month until the Supreme Court order was printed, mailed, and received at the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery on December 20, 1956, and formally served by U.S. marshals on the city officials. And then on the morning of December 21, 1956, 382 days after they had begun boycotting, Montgomery’s black citizens returned to the city buses with the right to sit wherever they pleased and to be treated with the same dignity and courtesy as white passengers. Which was all they had wanted in the first place.

There are many ironies in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Judge John B. Scott Sr. who convicted Rosa Parks was the grandson of one of Montgomery’s founders. He was also the secretary of the local bar association and had administered Fred Gray’s bar exam in 1954, admitting the young black lawyer to legal practice in Alabama. Attorney General John Patterson would parlay his segregationist stance in the bus boycott and other cases into election as Alabama governor in 1958 (beating a young George Wallace, who was the liberal in the race). Patterson’s election and Wallace’s conversion to segregationist tactics to win the governor’s office in 1962 set Alabama on the path toward full resistance to civil rights progress.

Ultimately Wallace and Patterson both recanted their segregationist views and policies and apologized, but by then Alabama had already lost in every court it ventured into, and Rosa Parks and Fred Gray were both national heroes, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, just to name two of the boycott participants; there were hundreds of others who played vital roles but never gained national fame.

And the 382 days . . . for years history books and even the Smithsonian Institution stated that the boycott lasted 381 days. But when they did the math, they forgot that 1956 was a leap year, and adding February 29 makes it 382 days.

[NewSouth Books titles exploring this history include: Bus Ride to Justice by Fred D. Gray; The Judge by Frank Sikora (biography of Frank M. Johnson Jr.); A White Preacher’s Message by Robert S. Graetz (original member of the Montgomery Improvement Association); This Day in Civil Rights History by Ben Beard and Randall Williams; Jim Crow and Me by Solomon S. Seay Jr.; Nobody But the People by Warren Trest (biography of John Patterson); Johnnie by Randall Williams (children’s book about Rosa Parks’s friend, Johnnie Carr), and Dixie Redux edited by Raymond Arsenault and Vernon Burton (an anthology containing a chapter on national reaction to the Montgomery boycott).]