By: Donald V. Watkins
September 29, 2022
I never got a chance to properly say "goodbye" to three of the bravest men I have met in life. Each one of these men had the courage to break down the color barrier in Alabama's public schools at a time when their lives and safety were threatened for doing so. Each man was a superstar in the profession. Each one was my client. And, each one made me a better person and lawyer.
These men are Harvest Mitchell, Jr., in Florence, Alabama, Charles L. Carter in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Walker Alexander in Attalla, Alabama.
This is their story and my personal tribute to their bravery.
Coach Harvest Mitchell, Jr. (October 5, 1931 - March 21, 2022)
Mr. Harvest Mitchell, Jr. graduated from Lanier High School in Chambers County, Alabama where he was a star football, basketball, and baseball athlete. After graduating from high school, Harvest Mitchell honorably served in the U.S. Army.
Mitchell received his Bachelor of Science degree from Alabama State College (ASC) in three years. Mitchell also played football at the college.
Coach Mitchell was employed for 35 years by the Florence City Board of Education, where he coached different sports and taught physical education and health. Mitchell made his mark as a head athletics coach, spending ten seasons at Burrell-Slater High School and seven at Coffee High School.
Mitchell was head football, basketball and track coach at all-black Burrell-Slater from 1959 through 1969. Mitchell built Burrell-Slater into a North Alabama sports powerhouse.
During his ten years at Burrell-Slater, Mitchell’s record in basketball was 209 victories and 46 loses; in football, it was 55 victories and 19 loses. He was nominated for basketball coach of the year eight of those ten years, and won five times. Mitchell was also chosen coach of the year in football once. These impressive achievements are complemented by the successful tournament participation of teams under his direction. Mitchell had no assistant coaches.
In 1968, Mitchell was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame in Madison County, Alabama.
Yet, the Florence Board of Education refused to award Mitchell a head coaching job at the predominantly white Coffee High School after Burrell-Slater was closed in 1969 as a result of a court desegregation order. Mitchell applied for a vacant head coaching position in football after the 1969-70 season ended and a head basketball coaching job during the 1970-71 school year. Both applications were rejected in favor of lesser qualified white applicants.
On March 6, 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered U.S. District Judge Frank H. McFadden to award the head basketball coaching job at Coffee High School to Harvest Mitchell. McFadden, who was affectionately known in the state’s white community as “Big Red,” was notorious for denying judicial relief for deserving black plaintiffs in school desegregation lawsuits. McFadden, an “old school” Mississippi native, regularly used the N-word in his private conversations.
Harvest Mitchell coached basketball at Coffee High School for four seasons, while also serving as an assistant football coach. The school, fan, and booster support Mitchell enjoyed at Burrell-Slater was replaced by tidal waves of racial hatred and resentment from the administration, fans, and boosters of Coffee High School.
I had the pleasure of representing Harvest Mitchell in 1976 when the School Board tried to replace him with a white basketball coach whose objective qualifications for the job were inferior to Mitchell’s. We returned to Judge Frank McFadden’s courtroom to fight for Mitchell’s job. After a lengthy trial, McFadden, once again, refused to enforce Mitchell’s constitutional right to fair employment practices.
Coach Mitchell withstood unbearable racial prejudice at Coffee High School without flinching or allowing it to bother him or impairing his coaching abilities.
Harvest Mitchell, Jr., died on March 22, 2022. He is survived by two children, Dr. Marshall Mitchell and Monica Mitchell.
Charles L. Carter (April 16, 1933 – December 7, 2015)
Mr. Charles L. Carter was a brave, smart, energetic, enthusiastic, and visionary man who always initiated positive action to improve educational opportunities for black Alabamians. Carter was a man who fought for the rights of many people, and he changed the educational landscape for black administrators in the Muscle Shoals (Alabama) School System by doing so.
Charles Carter graduated from Courtland High School and attended Alabama State College where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in education. He received a Master’s degree in education administration from the University of Indiana in Bloomington, followed by an Education Specialist degree from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Charles Carter’s first job was at all-black Cherokee High School where he was a football coach and physical education teacher. During his distinguished educational career, Carter held the position of principal at the all-black Webster School (1959-1967) and the newly desegregated Avalon Middle School (1971-77) in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He also served as a principal of Bullock County High School in Union Springs, Alabama.
Carter received the Avalon Middle School principalship by virtue of a court order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on December 28, 1971. After his Webster School was closed in 1967 pursuant to a court school desegregation order, Carter was assigned a teaching position in the school system’s Head Start program. He was passed over for four principalships between 1967 and 1971.
Carter sued the School Board in federal court for a principalship, but Judge Frank McFadden denied him judicial relief. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals promptly reversed McFadden’s decision and the Board of Education awarded Carter the principalship at Avalon to comply with the Appeals Court order.
I represented Charles Carter in 1977 when the School Board proposed to terminate his Avalon Middle School principalship. Once again, McFadden denied Carter judicial relief for the Board’s blatant racially-motivated act of discrimination.
Working with our friends and allies within the state’s civil rights community, we found Carter a better principalship – at Bullock County High School, where he served with distinction until his retirement.
In later years, Charles Carter became the director of RTP, which was recruiting and training program for disadvantaged minorities. This program led to many minorities gaining meaningful employment in Alabama.
Carter was also active with the Colbert County NAACP and the Alabama Democratic Conference. Carter finished his career in education by serving two terms as a board member of the Colbert County Board of Education.
I learned from Charles Carter how to maintain my calm demeanor and dignity in the midst of the most vicious forms of white racism. Mr. Carter was able to deflect the intense racial hatred that had been hurled in his direction with a gentle smile and total confidence in his ability to succeed under all circumstances.
Charles L. Carter died on December 7, 2015. He was survived by his three children: Charlene Carter, Dr. Deborah Ann Carter, and Jerry Lester Carter.
Walker Alexander a/k/a “Coach Al”
Walker Alexander coached football, basketball and track, and was athletic director at all-black Norris High School in Attalla, Alabama for 11 years before it closed in 1969 as a result of court desegregation order.
Alexander was a graduate of Carver High School in Etowah county, playing football and competing on the track team at the school. Alexander attended Alabama State College, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education. He later received a Master’s degree in counseling from Alabama A&M University.
Alexander produced championship football teams at Norris High School. He turned the school into an athletic powerhouse in the Southeast. Yet, when his Norris was closed as a result of a court desegregation order, Alexander could not get a head coaching position at any of the predominantly white Etowah County high schools.
In 1974, I sued the Etowah County Board of Education for discriminating against Alexander for head coaching positions. Following a trial in Gadsden, Alabama in April of 1975, U.S. District Judge Sam Pointer issued an order from the bench that required the School Board to “vacate the head basketball coaching position at Etowah High School, and award the position to Mr. Walker Alexander together with all benefits and privileges attendant to the job. The [Board] shall also give Mr. Alexander preference over any white applicants with equal qualifications for any future vacancy which occurs at the Etowah High School in the Athletic Director or head football coach position.”
A mob of angry white high school boosters tried to physically attack me after Judge Pointer exited the courtroom. I was rescued by black spectators and escorted to Birmingham under armed guard.
Alexander went back to court in 1977 after a vacancy occurred in the head football coaching job at Etowah County High School. The Attalla City Board of Education, which now operated the high school, had petitioned the Court for permission to hire Mr. Charles Randall Hearn rather than Mr. Alexander as head football coach of Etowah High School.
Following a hearing on February 25, 1978, the trial judge found that “while Mr. Alexander is well qualified for the vacancy, Mr. Hearn not only is well qualified, but exceptionally well qualified," and that "the board has in fact found someone who is better qualified than is Mr. Alexander." As such, the court entered an order granting the permission sought by the School Board.
We appealed the trial court's ruling, but the case was affirmed on appealed.
Alexander retired in 1991 after a 36-year career in education. He died in 1992, leaving behind a proud family and community to carry on his legacy of greatness.
Each of these men was a brave warrior for freedom, justice, and fair employment practices. Each man excelled in his profession while enduring extreme white bigotry, non-stop racial hatred, and constant death threats. Each one had an abundance of courage, intellect, class, and character. Each one was a man of honor.
I was blessed to be the attorney for these men at a crucial time in Alabama’s history.
These guys were real men. They never sold out their manhood for a pat on the head from the forces that opposed socio-economic progress for blacks in Alabama. These are the kind of men who made my legal career exciting, adventurous, meaningful, and impactful.
I miss them dearly.
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