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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Joseph Cole: A Profile in Courage

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on August 17, 2019

On January 20, 1978, 27-year-old Collis Madden Jr. died in a hail of bullets while fleeing a routine traffic stop on his way to his girlfriend’s apartment. Etowah County, Alabama sheriff’s deputies had pulled Madden over because they said he was weaving between lanes on the road. After Madden was stopped, he suddenly decided to speed off. City police joined in the chase. Nine police vehicles were part of the chase by the time the pursuit ended. The shooting started when one officer claimed Madden made a suspicious move. When Madden’s body was taken to the funeral home, the mortician counted 40 to 50 bullet holes in his body, thereby making it difficult to embalm him. 

News of Madden’s execution spread quickly across Alabama. Joseph Cole, the young president of the Gadsden chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, contacted me about the shooting death. I was a young attorney in Montgomery, Alabama who recently concluded a high-profile case involving a Montgomery police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black man named Bernard Whitehurst. After an officer screamed on the police radio that, “We done shot the wrong nigger,” a fellow officer planted a “throw-down” gun next to Whitehurst’s body to make it appear that he had been involved in a shootout with police.

The Whitehurst case evolved into a nationally recognized scandal that 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.  The Whitehurst case grew into the largest police scandal in Alabama’s history. It was headlined in the April 3, 1977, edition of the Washington Post as “Alabama’s Watergate." 

When Joseph Cole called me about Collis Madden’s case, I already knew it was probably a police execution. Joseph was leading a protest effort against Gadsden’s all-white police and fire departments and civil service board. He asked me to come to Gadsden to help the SCLC change the face of Gadsden’s all-white municipal government.

I drove to Gadsden to meet with Joseph at the site of the protest. There he was leading a protest movement consisting of several hundred women and children and a handful of men. I asked Joseph where the local men were. He told me the men were afraid to protest. They saw what happened to Collis Madden and they didn’t want that to happen to them.

When I pressed Joseph about his front line of women and children, he said, “At least we are doing something about the situation; what are you doing?” I did not respond. As I drove back to Montgomery, Joseph’s question bothered me. I watched strong black women and young children trying hard to change a very bad situation in Gadsden. I knew they needed and deserved my help.

I called Joseph Cole the next day and told him I would join the fight. All I needed the SCLC to do was pay the filing fees and court costs for the lawsuit against the City of Gadsden and do the leg work required locally. They scraped the money together and committed to the fight. We then declared war on Gadsden’s all-white city government.

We sued to desegregate the city's police and fire departments and the civil service board. The fight was intense and unrelenting.

A Fearless Warrior

This war gave me the opportunity to make a friend for life in Joseph Cole, a Gadsden native. Joseph graduated from Carver High School in Gadsden. He then attended Gadsden State Junior College, where he studied until he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Joseph served in the Army for three years and rose from a private to the rank of sergeant.

After serving his nation in uniform, Joseph Cole furthered his education at Gadsden State Technical Institute, where he became president of the student government association. As president, Joseph led student protests that eventually improved and enhanced the academic offering and respect for the students.

Word of Joseph Cole's courage and effective leadership at Gadsden State quickly spread throughout the city. Joseph was later asked by the African-American community to run for president of the SCLC chapter in Gadsden. He accepted this challenge and defeated a popular local community organizer for the position.

Collis Madden’s death in 1978 tested Joseph Cole’s mettle. Gadsden police had a long and ugly history of abusive behavior towards black men in the city. Police officers instilled fear in them through unbridled brutality, without fear of repercussions. As a tough and trained Army sergeant, Joseph Cole was not afraid of any man, in or out of uniform.

Joseph Cole decided that time was right to change Gadsden for the better. He inspired me into taking legal action against this institutionalized racism. Joseph found the perfect black applicants for challenging the hiring practices in the fire and police departments. He wanted to bust the civil service board because this agency set the criteria for hiring employees within city government.

Joseph Cole’s war on racial discrimination inside Gadsden’s city government came with plenty of threats of death and bodily harm. He did not care. Joseph always repeated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mantra: “A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.”

By 1979, the City of Gadsden was ready to surrender to Joseph Cole and his SCLC chapter. The city entered into a Consent Decree with the SCLC under which every department of the municipal government became integrated. Procedures for hiring and promoting employees had to be reviewed by Joseph Cole’s SCLC chapter prior to implementation. The civil service board became integrated for the first time ever. Forty years later, the Consent Decree Joseph Cole fought for and won is still in full force and effect.

He Never Stopped Fighting

After defeating racial discrimination in city government, Joseph Cole resumed his collegiate studies at Alabama State University. He became president of the student government association while my father was the university’s president. To this day, Joseph Cole is regarded as one of the most respected and effective SGA presidents in ASU history.

After graduating from ASU, Joseph Cole taught school in Birmingham and Atlanta. In January 1988, Joseph joined my legal team while I was serving as Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr.’s special counsel in Birmingham. Joseph joined our team during Arrington’s most challenging time as mayor.

From 1988 to 1992, the FBI used all of its traditional COINTELPRO tactics in an attempt to oust Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr. as the duly elected mayor of Birmingham Alabama. Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Dr. Arrington was one of 1,897 civil rights activists targeted by the FBI for neutralization.

In October 1979, Dr. Arrington became Birmingham’s first African-American mayor. He won re-election in 1983 and 1987 by wide margins. Arrington’s growing influence on Alabama’s statewide political scene made him a COINTELPRO target. Eventually, local FBI agents convinced federal prosecutors in Birmingham that it was time to take Arrington out as mayor.

Birmingham FBI agents stalked and harassed Mayor Arrington from 1988 to 1992 looking for any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. A few weeks prior to Dr. Arrington’s October 1991 re-election, federal prosecutors, at the urging of local FBI agents, publicly named Mayor Arrington an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the fraud trial of another individual.  The sole purpose of this public disclosure was to damage Arrington’s re-election bid and aid another candidate favored by local FBI/DOJ officials.

Dr. Arrington decried this attempted coup d'etat. On Election Day, Arrington swept to victory on the strength of his solid record of achievement as mayor and his broad-based popularity with voters.

Mayor Arrington was never indicted for any criminal offense. In 1992, DOJ officials in Washington cleared Mayor Arrington of all allegations of wrongdoing and issued the first-ever public apology to a sitting public official for smearing his name.  Dr. Arrington’s case was the first documented FBI-led coup d'etat of a duly elected mayor on U.S. soil.

The FBI’s targeting and harassment of Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr., is reported in the Congressional Record-Senate at S2533-2546 (March 9, 1990). Joseph Cole co-authored and edited this report.


The Collis Madden tragedy brought Joseph Cole and me together. Joseph’s demonstrated courage under fire forged a close friendship between us for life.

Many African-Americans in Gadsden city government today do not realize that the battles Joseph Cole fought in the late 1970s and early 1980s opened the doors for them to: (a) hold office on the Gadsden city council and local school board, (b) work as employees in all city departments, and (c) serve on the civil service board.

Joseph Cole never sought recognition for his courageous acts under fire. Rather, Joseph Cole sought respect for the African-American community. In the end, Joseph Cole found fulfillment in the fact that his actions and personal sacrifices positively impacted the larger Gadsden community for the betterment of all of its citizens.

PHOTO: Joseph Cole epitomizes courage under fire. His work as a fearless freedom fighter has changed the racial landscape of Gadsden, Alabama's municipal government.

PHOTO: A young Joseph Cole served our nation for three years in the U.S. Army.

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