Alabama’s Judicial Hall of Shame
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
By: Donald V. Watkins
An Expression of Personal Opinion
Copyrighted and Published on February 11, 2021
In my December 13, 2020 article titled, “Biden Must Quickly Fire COINTELPRO Prosecutors”, I highlighted several examples of modern-day racism and COINTELPRO conduct by federal prosecutors in Alabama. I also explained how and why COINTELPRO prosecutors found a sanctuary within the halls of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. This court was an original participant in the Department of Justice’s formal COINTELPRO program (1956 to 1971) and continued in an informal capacity for five more decades.
I heard through the grapevine that my article upset some vanguard members of Alabama’s legal establishment who took offense with me for calling out racism in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal courthouse. They believe I should show more respect for the federal law enforcement establishment as well as the federal judiciary in Alabama. They may be sincere in their beliefs, but they are dead wrong in their defense of the racist conduct embedded in these bodies.
In my article, I spotlighted only two egregious examples of modern-day racism within the federal judicial system. I could have added an encyclopedia of cases involving law enforcement and judicial racism I have witnessed during my 47-year legal career in Alabama’s federal judicial system.
Good v. Bad U.S. Attorneys
To be clear, not all U.S. Attorneys in Alabama during my career have been racists. In the Northern District alone, Alabama has been blessed with outstanding federal prosecutors like Jack Selden (a George H. W. Bush appointee), Doug Jones (a Bill Clinton appointee), Alice Martin (a George W. Bush appointee), and Joyce Vance (a Barack Obama appointee), all of whom are white and none of whom is racist. Jack Seldon, Doug Jones, and Alice Martin deserve to be in a Hall of Fame for U.S. Attorneys.
In contrast, the Northern District also had Frank Donaldson (a Ronald Reagan appointee) and Jay Town (a Donald Trump appointee) serving as U.S. Attorneys. Donaldson was an old-school racist who was forced into an early retirement by President George H. W. Bush’s Department of Justice because of his documented racism and COINTELPRO activities during a 4-year criminal investigation into the political affairs of Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. Donaldson’s attempted coup d’état of the Arrington Administration failed.
Jay Town received his U. S. Attorney’s position solely because he was a political flunky of Sen. Richard Shelby (R – Al), Alabama’s longtime U.S. Senator. Town’s only noteworthy credential was a TV political ad he made for Shelby’s 2016 re-election campaign. Prior to this ad, Town was a run-of-the-mill assistant district attorney in Huntsville, Alabama with a mediocre track-record as a prosecutor. After assuming office, Town turned over the day-to-day operations of the U.S. Attorney’s office to Lloyd Peeples, a man with a well-documented history of racism and sexism. Both men relished and revived the role of COINTELPRO prosecutors who targeted people, not crimes, for persecution. Both men are racists.
Racist Federal Judges
Racist federal judges have been a staple in Alabama’s federal judiciary throughout my legal career. For the purposes of this article, I define a racist as someone who called black attorneys and black litigants/criminal defendants “niggers” to their faces or behind their backs and/or who denied justice to black litigants/criminal defendants every chance they got.
In the Northern District, this group of racist federal judges included Seybourn Lynne, Frank “Big Red” McFadden, James “Jimmy” Hancock, and Edwin “Ed” Nelson, among others. In the Middle District, this group included Judge Robert Varner, among others. In the Southern District, this group included Judges Daniel Thomas and Brevard Hand, among others. These men belong in the Judicial Hall of Shame.
During my 47-year career, which began in 1973, there were exceptional federal judges in Alabama who sacrificed their social standing within Alabama’s white communities to ensure that black litigants/criminal defendants experienced the fair administration of justice in their courtrooms. Judge Sam Pointer rendered fair justice in the Northern District. Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., rendered it in the Middle District. Judge Virgil Pittman rendered it in the Southern District.
In 1980, the first two black federal judges joined the bench in Alabama. Judge U.W. Clemon became a federal judge in the Northern District and Judge Myron Thompson became a federal judge in the Middle District. Both men were respected civil rights attorneys and both dedicated their judicial careers to dispensing the fair administration of justice.
Judge Virgil Pittman, Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Sam Pointer, U.W Clemon, and Myron Thompson deserve to be in a Hall of Fame for Federal Judges. Their tenure on the federal bench breathed life into the U.S. Constitution for racial minorities, women, the mentally disabled, elderly Americans, gay Americans, religious minorities, and state/federal prisoners. They will be favorably remembered forever.
For those who think racism in Alabama is a thing of the past, let me leave you with this observation. Judge Edwin Nelson died as an unreformed racist. After his death, Nelson’s fellow judges in the Northern District chose to honor him by prominently displaying the wooden chest that held Nelson’s black judicial robe in an elevator lobby of the Hugo Black U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham. At a time when governments around the South are removing Confederate statues and offensive racist memorabilia from public display, a reasonable person has to ask why today’s federal judges in the Northern District have chosen to enshrine Judge Nelson as a man of honor in the halls of justice.
I lived through the horrors of COINTELPRO federal prosecutors. I also experienced the full wrath of racist federal judges. If I label a person a racist, it is solely because he/she is one. I judge people by their words and conduct, not by their titles. If a federal prosecutor or judge wants me to truly respect him/her, he/she must first demonstrate his/her respect for the “least of these” in his/her courtroom.
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