Donald V. Watkins
“Don’t Let Anybody Take Your Manhood”
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on June 9, 2019
I have written many times about my family’s personal interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Ms. Rosa Parks, Dr. Maya Angelou, and a host of other world-renown civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s. Because of our exposure to these humanitarians, my siblings and I consider ourselves to be children of the civil rights movement of that era.
Whenever Dr. King saw us in church or visited our home in Montgomery, Alabama, he would tell us: ”Don’t let anybody take your manhood. Believe in yourself and believe that you are somebody. Be proud of your heritage.”
Dr. King also told us: “If the negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with a pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation.” He proclaimed: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
On April 4th, 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee while he was protesting with sanitation workers who were demanding higher pay and better working conditions. I was a sophomore at Southern Illinois University when Dr. King was assassinated. One piece of me died that day while another piece of me was born out of the anguish from that tragic moment in American history.
I think Dr. King knew that his death was imminent. He gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech the night before his death. This was his last speech. As it turns out, Dr. King gave his own eulogy in this speech.
About eight years after Dr. King’s death, I learned that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, America’s top law enforcement agency, wallowed in the gutter in its treatment of Dr. King. A recent article by David J. Garrow, whose 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography titled “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference,” details the Bureau’s abhorrent treatment of Dr. King.
During the Bureau's COINTELPRO program, the FBI tormented Dr. King for years, labeled him “an evil, abnormal beast,” and pressured him to take his own life. To the FBI, Dr. King was considered the “most dangerous Negro” in America because of his ability to give powerful speeches and inspire the masses of Americans with his prolific writings.
Fortunately for society, Dr. King did not commit suicide. Instead, he inspired people like me to: (a) desegregate The University of Alabama’s law school and other public institutions in the South, (b) become effective and committed civil rights lawyers, and (c) liberate Alabama from the suffocating grip of racial discrimination and hatred.
My time to go to the front line in the fight against racial discrimination and hatred in Alabama occurred after I passed the Alabama Bar examination in 1973. Thanks to my parental upbringing and early exposure to Dr. King, I was not afraid.
The landmark cases were lined up and waiting for me. The same was true with respect to the searing flames of racial hatred. My mentors quickly taught me the courtroom skills that were necessary when dealing with hardcore racist judges, as well as the survival skills I needed to handle adversity outside the courtroom.
My career started with Mr. Clarence Norris, the last known surviving Scottsboro Boy, and his two-year quest to secure a full and unconditional pardon from the State of Alabama for his repeated convictions in the early 1930s on false rape charges involving two white teenagers. Mr. Norris' pardon request was highly controversial at the time. The death threats against me in this case were immediate and unrelenting. In 1976, Mr. Norris became the first defendant in Alabama history who was originally sentenced to death and who later received a full and unconditional pardon based upon his "innocence" of the criminal charges upon which he was convicted.
My next controversial case involved the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In this case of unethical medical experimentation, 600 impoverished black men (399 of whom had latent syphilis and 201 of whom were members of a so-called "control" group) were tricked by the U.S. Public Health Service and Macon County, Alabama officials into believing they were being treated for syphilis. In fact, they were not being treated at all. Even when penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947, this treatment protocol was withheld from the men who had syphilis. From 1932 to 1972, the government tracked their medical condition as they suffered and died from this general disease. A class action lawsuit against the government brought death threats and harassment against the lawyers who fought for and received compensation for the surviving participants and their families.
Between 1975 and 1977, I represented the Estate of Bernard Whitehurst in a wrongful death case against the Montgomery police department. Whitehurst was an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by Montgomery police officer Donnie Foster. Police officials initially claimed that Whitehurst was a fleeing felon who shot at Foster while on the run. My investigation, which included exhuming Whitehurst’s body, revealed that he had been shot in the back and that the gun found beside his body had been “planted” there by a police detective after his death.
The Whitehurst case evolved into a nationally recognized scandal and resulted in the resignations of Montgomery’s mayor and police commissioner, the indictment of three police officers, and the firing or resignation of eight others. This scandal was headlined in the April 3, 1977, edition of the Washington Post as “Alabama’s Watergate." On March 8, 2018, I featured this case in an article titled, “We Done Shot the Wrong Nigger: The Bernard Whitehurst Story.”
The death threats and racial hatred I received during this case were unbearable, but I stayed the course. The Montgomery police department also tried to get me indicted on charges of bribing and threatening police officers. This became the first of many efforts by law enforcement officials to get me indicted on trumped-up criminal charges. Anonymous callers to my home also threatened to throw acid in the face of my very young children if I did not back off of my investigation. I never backed off in my quest for the truth in this case.
In 1983, an out-of-state black family was mourning the death of their mother/grandmother in Montgomery when two white police officers mistook the Michigan and Ohio mourners’ license plates as a gathering of out-of-state drug dealers. Unbelievably, these officers raided the funeral gathering. The mourners "stood their ground" at their family home on Todd Road. Violence erupted in and around the home. The officers, who were believed to be home invaders, were shot during the ensuing melee. The mourners were subsequently arrested and severely beaten while in police custody. My investigation as a Montgomery city councilman into what happened during the “Todd Road incident” resulted in felony criminal charges against eleven of the mourners being reduced to misdemeanors in four cases and dropped altogether in eight others. Again, there were death threats and hatred directed at me for merely investigating this incident.
After the Todd Road incident, I moved my law practice to Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, Birmingham was led by Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr., its first black mayor. Little did I know that I would experience racism on steroids in Birmingham. It didn’t take long for whites in Birmingham to openly referred to me, orally and in writing, as “The Mayor’s Nigger Lawyer.” Dr. Arrington, himself, was openly referred to as "Mayor Arrogant Nigger." Prominent white business leaders tried to run me out of town. The local media, led by the Birmingham News and now-defunct Birmingham Post Herald, vilified me because I served as Mayor Arrington’s confident and effective Special Counsel during the time when local FBI agents and federal prosecutors were attempting a coup d'état against Dr. Arrington (from 1988 to 1992) after they failed to defeat him at the ballot box. The government lawlessness in Arrington's case is detailed in the Congressional Record-Senate at S2533-2546 (March 9, 1990).
After Mayor Arrington left office in 1999, federal investigators in Birmingham poured over all of my invoices to the City from 1985 to 1999 looking for any evidence upon which to charge me with a criminal offense. They found nothing.
During my 46-year-legal career, my other landmark civil rights cases: (a) changed the method for selecting members to the Alabama State Board of Education from at-large to district elections; (b) desegregated all of Alabama’s community colleges and technical schools; (c) desegregated the faculty and staffs within 67 of Alabama’s then-128 public school systems; and (d) desegregated Alabama’s 32 four-year public colleges and universities and secured court-ordered doctoral and new academic programs, as well as nearly $600 million in new funding (beyond the regular state appropriations) and endowment money for Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University. All of these positive changes on the state’s racial landscape came in the face of non-stop death threats and massive resistance to progress for the historical victims of official, state-sponsored, racial discrimination.
I have always known that the privilege of standing up for those who have no voice in society comes with a heavy price. I have always been willing to pay this price. Sometimes the price is a physical assassination, as was the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes it is character assassination and imprisonment, as was the case with Nelson Mandela.
In my case, the price for my advocacy for transparency and accountability in government and respect for humanity has been character assassination and may eventually include imprisonment. My visit in 2012 to the small prison cell on Robbins Island in South Africa where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life in isolation has prepared me psychologically for the possibility of imprisonment.
Despite all of the hatred, death threats, and threats of bodily harm to my children, I am proud of one thing – I never allowed anyone to take my manhood from me.
God has blessed me with the privilege, ability, and opportunity to serve humanity without being killed or suffering bodily harm. For this blessing, I am eternally grateful.
PHOTO: Donald V. Watkins was sworn-in as a Montgomery city councilman in 1979. His then-wife DeAndra, parents Levi and Lillian Watkins, and sons Donald, Jr., Light, Drew, and Dustin look on.