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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Mopping Floors With a Smile

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on July 2, 2021

In "Life at LaTuna," published on May 6, 2021, I described my job at the federal correctional institution at LaTuna where I clean tables and sweep and mop the floors in Section Two of the dining hall five days per week. I take extreme pride in my job performance and do it with a smile.

The reason I do this job with a smile is because I am now doing the same job that one of the greatest heroes in my life performed when I met him in 1970. His name was Mr. Ramus Rhodes and he was the janitor at The University of Alabama School of Law while I was a student there from September 1970 to May 1973. I attended the law school on a desegregation scholarship from the NAACP's Herbert Lehman Fund in New York City.

By education, Mr. Rhodes was a certified school teacher, having received his degree in education from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. By occupation, Mr. Rhodes was the person who swept, mopped and cleaned the law school building (Farrah Hall) -- a job he had held for decades. He wore the brown khaki uniforms designated for black custodians, laundry room workers, grass-cutters, manual laborers, garbage men, and cafeteria workers so that white students, faculty, and professional staff members would know that these blacks had permission to be on campus.

By the time Mr. Rhodes graduated from college, the all-white school board in Tuscaloosa had run out of money to hire "colored" teachers for the system's schools for "colored" students. So, Mr. Rhodes accepted the janitor's job at Farrah Hall in order to feed, clothe and house himself, his wife and their young children. His mother also worked as a custodian at the University for decades.

My "Real" Law School Professor Was a Janitor-Warrior

I am educated and trained as a licensed lawyer. Throughout my three years as a law student at Alabama, Mr. Rhodes, who had no formal legal training but had a brilliant legal mind, taught me how to use the law as a weapon to slay the dragons of racial segregation in Alabama and how to do so without fearing any man. I became proficient in this art of war against racial segregation and discrimination during my 48-year career. Mr. Rhodes was the best instructor at the law school and one of the best human beings I have ever met in my life. His mop closet was my real classroom.

Through his life's experiences in overcoming intense racial discrimination, Mr. Rhodes' instructions on defeating Jim Crow-era laws and social customs in Alabama helped me in desegregating all of Alabama's 32 senior colleges and universities, all of its junior colleges and technical schools, 68 of its public K-12 school systems, and many municipal police and fire departments across the state, all in the face of massive resistance from the white oligarchy that ran the state. It also enabled me to curb the "out-of-control" fatal police shootings of unarmed black men while I served as the youngest city council member in Montgomery, Alabama's history from 1979 to 1983. Furthermore, this instruction prepared me to dismantle voter suppression structures like "at-large" voting schemes in statewide, county, and municipal elections that perpetuated the election of all-white government bodies.

Mr. Rhodes' instruction on social justice also helped me to kill municipal "debtor courts" around the state that imprisoned blacks and poor white defendants in city jails who could not afford to pay their fines and court costs in routine traffic and misdemeanor cases. It focused me on pursuing and achieving equitable educational funding and unprecedented state-funded endowments for the state's two historically black colleges and universities -- Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University.

Mr. Rhodes' lessons on perseverance helped me to achieve justice in the famous "Scottsboro Boys" rape case for the last known living Scottsboro Boy (Mr. Clarence Norris) 45-years after his arrest. In 1976, the state of Alabama Pardons and Parole Board formally declared Mr. Norris (and the other eight Scottsboro Boys) "innocent" of the capital charges of raping two white women on a freight train in Paint Rock, Alabama in 1931, and issued him a full and unconditional pardon. Mr. Norris' pardon was the only one ever issued to a former death row inmate based upon an official finding of "innocence."

Finally, Mr. Rhodes' instruction on human rights helped me in my work with legendary civil rights attorney Fred Gray as we secured record-setting compensation in the late 1970s for the surviving victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a case of human experimentation in medicine in which federal, state, and local officials deliberately withheld penicillin from approximately 600 poor black men in Macon County, Alabama from 1932 to 1972 in order to study the effects of untreated syphilis over time. The men were duped into participating in the study after these government officials deliberately represented to them that they would be treated for their syphilis. This representation was a 40-year lie.

Trading Places

Today, I am cleaning tables, sweeping and mopping floors at LaTuna as a "political prisoner." I wear the same brown khaki uniform that Mr. Rhodes wore as a janitor. I smile everyday while I do my job with the same pride, honor, and perfection Mr. Rhodes showed in doing his job.

I call myself a "political prisoner" because the lead federal prosecutor who put me in prison -- Lloyd Peeples -- is the son of one of Dothan, Alabama's white oligarchy members who vehemently opposed my successful efforts to desegregate all of the public schools in the Dothan area in the late 1970s. After losing the desegregation fight, Peeples' father sent his son Lloyd to a "white-flight" private academy in Georgia. Lloyd Peeples later attended Washington and Lee University (which is named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee) where he, as an editor of the student newspaper, publicly railed against the university's efforts to increase admissions for women and blacks. In 2017, former president Donald Trump's Department of Justice hired Peeples (and other federal prosecutors in Alabama) to head up a renewed version of the Department's old COINTELPRO program to target, persecute, and prosecute black businessmen who operated highly successful and competitive mainstream businesses. This program ensnared prominent black business men like Chris Pitts (Montgomery), Jonathan Dunning (Birmingham), and me, among others, by filing trumped up criminal charges against us.

And, like his deceased father, Peeples is reportedly very liberal in his use of the word "nigger" in private all-white settings.

Like Mr. Rhodes, I am using my time at LaTuna to patiently mentor the next generation of social justice warriors. They are Latino, Native, Asian, and Black Americans, and indeed, even some down-trodden whites, many of whom have been failed by the federal criminal justice system. The inmates I am mentoring are mentally tough and have plenty of courage. And now, they are learning to overcome social injustices and systemic discrimination in all of its insidious forms, including racism.

Using Ramus Rhodes' method of instruction, we now know what any one properly trained student of history and law can accomplish as a warrior for social justice in his/her lifetime. We can only imagine what dozens of mentally tough, courageous, dedicated, and properly trained social justice advocates can accomplish.

Famed Selma, Alabama civil rights attorney J. L. Chestnut once told me, "Donald, you cannot represent black folks if you are scared." These men are definitely not scared, and neither am I. Right now, they are simply paying their so-called "debt to society." However, once released, the positive impact that these social justice warriors will have on society will be immediate, profound, and long-lasting.

This is why I smile!

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