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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

A Dark Place in American History

Updated: Apr 15, 2018

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on April 14, 2018; Updated at 8 p.m. EST

On April 8, 2018, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a gut-wrenching story about lynchings in America. The segment included graphic photographs of lynchings in a report by contributor Oprah Winfrey. Like millions of Americans, I watched this powerful story. It documented a tragic but important part of the African-American experience.

In my lifetime, I have seen horrendous acts that have revealed the inhumanity of mankind.

I have seen blacks savagely beaten for trying to use a public water fountains and restrooms that was reserved for “Whites Only” and for trying to eat at segregated lunch counters in a local department store.

State laws forced me to attend all-black schools in Memphis, Tennessee and Montgomery, Alabama. This situation lasted until I went to college at Southern Illinois University in 1966.

During the first half of the 20th Century, black men in the South were burned alive by white “Christians” for alleged crimes against white women while law enforcement officials looked on.

In 1955, I saw the Jet Magazine photos of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s battered, beaten and mutilated body during his open-casket funeral and listened in horror as my parents told us what happened to him. Till was viciously beaten and murdered in Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a white woman.

I watched the 1963 Birmingham church bombing on TV while I was a teenager in Montgomery. During this same period, I saw the City of Birmingham, Alabama’s fire hoses and police dogs turned on school children who were protesting for an end to racial segregation in public accommodations and schools.

In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks sat in my parents’ home as I listened to them describe the rivers of blood that flowed from the civil rights protesters’ courageous acts of civil disobedience across the South.

I watched the news in August 1964 when federal authorities discovered the bodies of three civil rights workers who were kidnapped by local sheriff’s deputies and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering blacks to vote in Mississippi.

I watched real-time TV news accounts about the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the 1965 murders of civil rights workers Viola Liuzzo (from Michigan) and Jimmy Lee Jackson (from Selma) in Alabama, and the 1968 assassination of Dr. King in Memphis.

In 1963, I watched Governor George Wallace block the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University of Alabama. In 1965, I watched John Lewis and other civil rights marchers brave horrendous beatings by Alabama state troopers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

In 1974, Clarence Norris told me about the beatings and torture he and the other eight Scottsboro Boys endured after their 1931 arrest on false rape charges and imprisonment in Alabama. When I retrieved the Scottsboro Boys’ case file from state archives, the old prison records verified Norris’ account of the prison system’s brutality.

As young children, our parents told us about the lynching of my maternal grandfather’s cousin in Mississippi and how my mother’s father barely escaped death in the same incident.

On March 21, 1981, the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and lynched a 19-year-old African-American teenager named Michael Donald in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This was the last recorded lynching in America.

In 1966, I saw young white college students throw garbage on my brother Levi Watkins, Jr., after he entered Vanderbilt’s University's medical school as its first black medical student. I also witnessed first-hand the isolation and hatred Levi endured during his four years as a trailblazer at Vanderbilt.

When I desegregated the University of Alabama’s law school in 1970, I began the longest and loneliest three-year chapter of my life. After I graduated from the law school and started practicing law in an all-white judiciary and in front of all-white juries, some white state court judges routinely referred to me for the first couple of years as the “nigger lawyer from Montgomery”. Several federal judges did not call me by any name or title; they simply barked out orders and rulings in a nasty and demeaning tone.

After I became a lawyer in 1973, I was threatened with bodily harm and death on so many occasions because of my representation of poor, underprivileged, and disadvantaged citizens that I have simply lost count of the number of such threats. I have been hauled before grand juries and threatened by rogue prosecutors with made-up offenses (which never went anywhere), attacked by state and federal regulatory bodies with oversight responsibility for my private businesses, and peppered with personal attacks on my character by public officials whose propensity for racial animosity exceeds all known means for objective measurement.

These were not experiences I read about in scholarly journals or best-selling books; these were my real life experiences. Through it all, I have learned what it is like to be a victim of unimaginable acts of hatred, denigration, harassment, and abuse of power and process solely because of the color of my skin and negative racial stereotyping.

These experiences have not made me bitter, but they have heightened my awareness of just how evil some people can be. As a result, I am aggressive and passionate in the way I fight to safeguard the human and civil rights of others.

This is why I fought as hard as I could from 1974 to 1976 to secure a full and unconditional pardon for Clarence Norris, the only one of the “Scottsboro Boys” who lived long enough to see the State of Alabama officially declare their innocence of rape charges lodged against them in 1931. Norris’s pardon was the first and only time the State of Alabama has awarded a former death row inmate a such pardon based upon a finding that the recipient was “innocent" of the rape charges for which he was convicted.

This is why I worked so hard in 2016 to solve the 2005 murder of 19-year-old Army Private LaVena Johnson on a military base in Balad, Iraq by General Kevin P. Byrnes (Retired) and to expose a cover-up of her death by the Pentagon’s top chain of command. To this day, the Army’s investigative files in Private Johnson’s death, which the Army officially classified as a “suicide," are still classified as a matter of “national security” and can only be released to the public with the approval of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This is why I blasted Rep. Steve Hurst (R-Talladega) for introducing a bill in the Alabama Legislature in 2016 that required the surgical castration of sex offenders in Alabama prisons. State-mandated mutilation of the human body simply has no place in a post-Nazi era civilized society.

I have lived through some barbaric times in Alabama, and I do not want to see us return to this dark period in our history. Alabama has subjected its black citizens to unimaginable acts of horror. ISIS and the Nazis might have picked up some of their brutality and torture techniques from Alabama’s public officials and the state’s die-hard “Christian”

segregationists. ISIS’s practice of burning people alive comes straight out of Alabama’s long and ugly history of burning black men alive as part of the lynching ritual. ISIS’s acts of bombing and burning churches and other places of worship come straight out of 1950s and 60s era Birmingham. The Nazis’ regiment of beating, torturing, hogtieing prisoners to posts, and murdering them came straight out of Alabama’s prison system. Nazi medical experiments on Jewish concentration camp internees were preceded by Alabama’s infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” experiments on black men from 1932 to 1972.

I have seen the devastating effects of hatred in the name of God, religion and “states rights”. We can never go back to this dark place in American history.

PHOTO: "Scottsboro Boy" Clarence Norris (right) and Attorney Donald Watkins (left) receiving Norris's full and unconditional pardon from the State of Alabama in 1976. This was the first and only time the State has awarded a former death row inmate such a pardon upon a finding that the recipient was "innocent" of the rape charges for which he was convicted.

PHOTO: Army Private LaVena Johnson was murdered in 2005 by one of her Commanders while serving her country on a military base in Balad, Iraq. The Army's investigative files in her "suicide" case remain remain sealed 13 years later as a matter of national security.

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