“A Time to Speak: The Story of a Young American Lawyer’s Struggle for His City—and Himself” By: Charles Morgan, Jr.
“A Time to Speak: The Story of a Young American Lawyer’s Struggle for His City—and Himself”
Author: Charles Morgan, Jr.
New Foreword by Senator Doug Jones
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $19.95 (Paper)
Charles Morgan Jr. took the title for his 1964 memoir from Ecclesiastes, 3:7: “A time to keep silence and a time to speak.”
Ecclesiastes is a good source of titles. Hemingway, a spokesman for “The Lost Generation,” following the horrors and disillusionment of WWI, found his title in chapter one, which is entitled: “Everything is Futile.” “All things are wearisome,” it reads, and repetitious; “there is nothing new under the sun.” “What has been done will be done again.”
The optimistic note in chapter one is that no matter how hopeless the strivings of man, the rivers keep flowing to the sea and each morning the sun rises.
In the late 1950s, Pete Seeger used verses 1-5 of chapter 3 in his magnificent anti-war folk song: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” After the line “a time for peace” Seeger, ever hopeful, added “I swear it’s not too late.”
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in the 16th St. Baptist Church. Four little girls were killed and many more churchgoers injured.
On the next day, Monday, September 16th, at the Young Men’s Business Club luncheon, Charles Morgan spoke up and it cost him dearly.
Morgan had always been a man with a powerful conscience.
In 1956, as an undergraduate student leader at UA, he had called Autherine Lucy on the phone to tell her he would do his best to “help prepare her way onto campus,” giving her, as she later said, “one moment of hope.”
Riots ensued. Lucy was expelled. Violence worked. That was noted by anti-integration forces in Little Rock and especially Oxford, Mississippi.
Morgan graduated from the university and the law school and was a rising star in the Alabama legal community. He had a thriving practice in Birmingham, a home in Mountain Brook and, almost certainly, a future in Alabama politics.
Before the church bombing, he had already been involved with a number of civil rights cases that attracted negative attention from many of the powerful in Birmingham.
Morgan had represented Rev. Robert Hughes, of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, who refused to turn over all his records of contributors to that cause. To make their names public would endanger those good citizens’ careers and safety.
Hughes lost his pulpit and took a job as a Methodist minister in Southern Rhodesia.
Morgan represented John Robert Zellner, a SNCC organizer in Montgomery, falsely accused of vagrancy and passing a bad check.
Like most attorneys, Morgan did not spend a lot of time in criminal court. However, as a young man he obtained permission from his firm to represent a black client accused of and clearly guilty of murder. (There were twelve eyewitnesses.) On the jury there was one African-American, and Morgan’s senior partner told him if the state didn't strike that juror, he must. Morgan was uncertain.
In order to save the defendant's life, he was told, "A white jury in Birmingham won't punish a Negro for a crime against Negroes the same way they might punish whites." A black juror would place a higher valuation on the life of the black victim and might vote for the electric chair.
Morgan was involved in resisting illegal redistricting and was in favor of the merger movement to incorporate Mountain Brook and Homewood into Birmingham, and many other unpopular causes, but it was his speech on the day after the bombing that blew up his life.
That Monday, standing before his “young businessman” peers, Morgan rejected the usual platitudes and excuses: that extremists, Klansmen, rednecks, were responsible for the violence in Birmingham, and in a short and eloquent speech he answered the rhetorical question: “who IS guilty?”
Each of us, he said. “Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States…. every person in this community who has in any way contributed to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.”
Within days, Morgan’s legal clients deserted him. He and his family were inundated with death threats; he was socially ostracized and within a month left town. A year later this memoir was published.
Charles Morgan would, from his base in Washington, continue to work hard for racial justice, arguing cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, representing various figures in the civil rights movement, fighting for free speech for Vietnam War soldiers. He established the regional office of the ACLU in Atlanta.
But the state of Alabama was forever short one very good man.
Senator Doug Jones, in his Introduction, tells the reader that now, 57 years later, we are in a similar historical moment. “The murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo Movement, and the blind eye many turned toward the insurrection at our nation’s capitol all show us the dangers of silence, of choosing not to speak, of the dangers of indifference.”
It is, Senator Jones says, once again a time to speak.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.