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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Fighting Hard to Integrate Alabama's All-White Appellate Courts

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

by: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and published on September 16, 2021

Some of my old colleagues have asked me why I continue to fight so hard against Alabama's all-white appellate court system. All of the members of the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals are white in a state with a 26.8% black population. The Alabama Courts of Criminal and Civil Appeals have never had a black member. The Alabama Supreme Court has not had a black member in over two decades.

These colleagues further pointed out that nearly all of the state's black elected officials have succumbed to the reality that blacks in Alabama will not be represented on the state's appellate courts. The state's mainstream media and their editorial directors have no problem with this reality, either. They have never criticized the racial make-up of these all-white courts. Likewise, the Alabama Bar Association has been as quiet as a "church mouse" on this subject. Even the federal court judges in Alabama appear to be at peace with this sorry state of judicial affairs.

I seem to be the only public figure in Alabama who is raising hell publicly about the state's all-white appellate courts. Some black leaders in the state suggest that I leave this subject alone and join them in the slavery era mantra of "going along to get along." This, I cannot do.

I will not dishonor the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors and all of the civil rights activists in Alabama and around the nation who bled and died for our right to have courts that included us within their membership ranks. I realize that Alabama is, and always has been, the citadel of oppressive white political power in America. After all, Alabama is the "Heart of Dixie" and the "Cradle of the Confederacy."

Today, Alabama serves as a shining example to the nation on how to attain, maintain, and perpetuate an all-white appellate court system and all-white elected constitutional officers in a state with a 26.8% black population. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee would be extremely proud of this dubious accomplishment in the modern era.

On the flip side, Alabama has shown the nation just how impotent many black elected officials and civil rights organizations in the state and nation really are. They appear to have willingly accepted an all-white appellate court system, without protest or condemnation. Their reluctance to pressure the Biden administration's Justice Department to step in and remedy this unbelievably sad situation is inexcusable. These elected officials, who include Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-AL), should be advancing and protecting the political interests of Alabama's black community rather than kow-towing to the white special interest groups that want to preserve the quo on the state's appellate court bench.

To be clear, I do not believe in all-white public bodies, all-white court systems, a system of all-white elected constitutional officers, and/or all-white corporate boards in a state that is 26.8% black. This "all-white" political paradigm is un-American.

Many White Alabamians View Me as a "Trouble-Maker"

Understandably, many whites and a few Uncle Toms in Alabama view me as a "trouble-maker" because I believe African-Americans in the 21st century are entitled to have elected members sitting on all three of the state's appellate courts. While they have a right to criticize me and my civil rights agenda, I have a right to criticize them, as well.

I have been warned by my colleagues that the white judges on the appellate bench in Alabama are going to "F--- me up" for stirring up controversy on this subject. Maybe so. However, if this is the price I must pay for black Alabamians to achieve the goal of racially diversity on the Alabama Supreme Court, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and Alabama Court of Civil Appeals in the 21st century, then so be it.

One thing is for sure -- I do not intend to pass the battle to integrate Alabama's all-white appellate courts down to my children and their children for them to fight at a later date. I would be less than a man if I did so. I have too much respect for myself, my children, my grandchildren, and my community to engage in this kind of political cowardice.

My colleagues often remind me about the way in which the federal court in Birmingham railroaded me during my 2019 criminal trial, and the real reason why they imprisoned me. Indeed, I was railroaded and, yes, I am imprisoned as a show of "white might" in Birmingham. But, the criminal justice system's mistreatment of me is no excuse for allowing Alabama's white political and judicial power players to rob the state's 26.8% of black population of their constitutional right to elect candidates of their choice to the state's appellate courts.

Sometimes Prison Can Be a Badge of Honor

While it is true that I have been incarcerated in federal prison for slightly more than 2 years, we must all remember that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, South African President Nelson Mandela, and other notable civil rights activists spent far more time in jail than me. Dr. King and Mr. Mandela were also indicted on trumped up felony charges and railroaded in court just because they fought against engrained and widespread racial segregation when it was not popular to do so. I experienced the same fate.

Nelson Mandela was a great trial lawyer and represented himself during his criminal trial, just like I did. Mr. Mandela was railroaded during his trial, just like me. Mr. Mandela was convicted of the charges against him and spent 27 years in prison, with most of this time spent in solitary confinement.

In my case, Birmingham federal prosecutor Lloyd Peeples, who never saw an all-white power structure in Alabama that he did not like, tried to send me to prison for nearly 18 years for engaging in the same business transactions that unbiased and considerably more qualified New Jersey-based federal prosecutors reviewed first and determined to be in compliance with all applicable federal laws. Even though Peeples is still running amok in the Birmingham U.S. Attorney's office, this is no reason for Alabamians of interracial goodwill to act like cowards who are afraid to question the all-white status of the state's appellate courts.

Changing the Status Quo

I do not think I am the real problem here. In fact, I view myself as part of the solution to slowing down Alabama's growing and hardening white political power movement. For the most part, this movement has beaten down the state's black elected officials into Jim Crow-era submission. They have surrendered their manhood and womanhood to a mostly-male and all-white political oligarchy.

I have not sold out my people, and I never will. Even while imprisoned, I am still "unbought and unbossed." Furthermore, I realize that "everybody who is your color is not your kind."

As long as I have a breath of life left in my body, I will fight hard to dismantle the Jim Crow-era election scheme that has produced Alabama's three all-white appellate courts. Like Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Rev. Shuttlesworth, Mr. Mandela, and the others, I can continue to carry on this fight from prison.

Finally, I do not view my imprisonment as a badge of shame. Instead, I view it as a bridge to freedom for an African-American community in Alabama that deserves so much more than what state and federal political leaders are giving them by tolerating Alabama's all-white appellate court system.

IMAGE: Alabama's all-white Court of Criminal Appeals, Supreme Court and Court of Civil Appeals

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