By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on February 26, 2023
After I became a civil rights lawyer in Alabama in 1973, I fought side-by-side on the front lines of the movement for equal rights in the state with one of the bravest men I have ever known. His name is Dr. Joe L. Reed.
I first met Dr. Reed when he served as the student body president at Alabama State University (ASU), while my father, Dr. Levi Watkins, served as the university's business manager. I could tell immediately that this man had "balls." He was smart, polite, focused, confident, and fearless.
Dr. Reed graduated from ASU in 1962 -- the same year my father became president of the university. Dr. Reed pursed and acquired his master's degree with financial assistance from ASU.
In 1964, with his master's degree in hand and with the backing of my father, Dr. Reed became the Executive Secretary of the Alabama State Teacher Association (ASTA). ASTA came into existence in 1882 at the dawn of Alabama's "separate, but equal" era. It was the professional education association for black teachers and administrators in the state.
In 1967, Dr. Reed and my father joined forces in an effort to block the construction of Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM). This branch of Auburn University was authorized in 1967 by Act 403 of the Alabama Legislature to provide college-bound white students in Montgomery with an alternative to attending historically black ASU, which is also located in Montgomery.
Act 403 was signed into law during Gov. George Wallace’s infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” era of the 1960s. AUM was intended to serve as a lasting symbol of Alabama's "massive resistance" to the desegregation of the state's institutions of higher education.
In 1967, Dr. Joe L. Reed and the ASTA, as an organization, sued in federal court to block AUM’s construction. Reed and ASTA claimed that AUM would perpetuate a dual system of public higher education in Montgomery. Despite a spirited, two-year court fight, a three-judge federal court in Montgomery and U.S Supreme Court in Washington eventually permitted AUM's creation.
On July 30, 1969, ASTA merged into the all-white Alabama Education Association (AEA), which was also created in 1882 for white teachers. Dr. Paul Hubbert headed AEA at the time of the merger. Dr. Reed became the Associate Executive Secretary of AEA.
Dr. Reed also headed AEA's litigation division, which he built into a legal powerhouse. This strategic move gave Dr Reed direct control over AEA's growing litigation budget, as well as access to the much larger National Education Association's litigation budget.
This move by Dr. Reed was brilliant. Plus, it would have a far-reaching impact on dismantling the state's dual school systems in an equitable manner over the next three decades.
A Racist Agenda "from the Cradle to the Grave"
In Dillard v. Crenshaw, 640 F. Supp. 1347, 1357 (M.D. Ala. 1986), the federal court found, as a judicial fact, that Alabama "had an unrelenting historical agenda, spanning from the late 1800s to the 1980s, to keep its black citizens economically, socially, and politically downtrodden, from the cradle to the grave."
From 1973 to 1994, Dr. Joe Reed and I fought in the courts and on the Montgomery City Council (from 1979 to 1983) to dismantle the state's unrelenting racist agenda. Together, we fought to: (a) end the killing of unarmed black men by trigger-happy white Montgomery police officers, (b) ban psychometrically defective and racially biased teacher testing in Alabama, (c) desegregate all departments in Montgomery's City Hall, as well as the officer ranks of the city's police department, (d) free former Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Jr., from four years of racially-motivated federal prosecutorial misconduct, (e) persuade former President Jimmy Carter to appoint U.W. Clemon and Myron Thompson as Alabama’s first two black federal judges, (f) desegregate residential housing in Montgomery; (g) change the method for selecting members of the Alabama State Board of Education from an at-large election apparatus to district elections; (h) desegregate all of Alabama’s junior colleges and technical schools; (i) desegregate the faculty and staffs within 67 of Alabama’s then-128 public school systems; and (j) desegregate Alabama’s 32 four-year public colleges and universities.
All of our fights to advance civil rights and equal opportunity in Alabama came with a torrent of death threats from "white-power"activists in the state and criticism from "Uncle Toms" in the black community. We simply ignored both groups.
Dr. Reed has given blood, sweat and tears for nearly seven decades to make Alabama a better place for all of its citizens. He carried the fight for equal opportunity and participatory democracy when nobody else of color was allowed in the room with the all-white oligarchy that ran Alabama.
Dr. Reed never flinched or backed down from loving Alabama at a time when this state hated its citizens of color solely because we wanted to be treated as human beings. He never "buck-danced" for any white powerbroker.
Dr. Reed's word was always his bond. If Dr. Reed gave you his word on something, you could take it to the bank.
Dr. Reed always stressed that there are three things we should NEVER allow in life. First, NEVER let anybody take your manhood/womanhood from you. Second, NEVER let anybody rob us of our history. Third, NEVER let anybody abuse our children, women, or the elderly.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was my Sunday School teacher, pastor, and Baptist Training Union instructor at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, taught us the same three principles. I have followed these principles in life and in business, religiously.
All Leaders Are Subject to Criticism
Over the years, Dr. Reed and I have had our political differences on various issues of significant public interest. They were never personal in nature. Despite these differences, I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Reed and his historical contribution to the state of Alabama.
More recently, I have watched many whites and a growing number of blacks on the Alabama political scene publicly criticize Dr. Reed for his strong, confident, and effective leadership style. I have never done so.
Constructive criticism of Dr. Reed for his stands on public policy matters is fine with me. After all, Dr. Reed is a well-known "public figure" in Alabama and around the nation.
With that said, I have never tolerated any criticism of Dr. Reed in my presence from those who have no known track-record of advancing equal opportunity and participatory democracy in Alabama at a time when you had to put your life on the line to do so. Furthermore, I have never allowed anyone who was missing-in-action during our long, hard, and difficult struggle to advance civil rights and equal opportunity in Alabama to verbally attack Dr. Reed, without one hell of a verbal whipping from me.
I personally know the lonely road Dr. Reed traveled and the price he paid for our freedom and progress in Alabama. Dr. Reed was leading the cause for equal opportunity, political and economic empowerment, and social justice at a time when young black men (and women) in Alabama had real courage. Today, nearly all of these brave men (and women) are gone.