The Day the Union Troops Went Home
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on November 28, 2021
When I ended my tenure as a Montgomery, Alabama city council member in October 1983, the City's long-serving, right-wing Republican mayor, Emory Folmar, publicly proclaimed that this was "one of the greatest blessings since the Union troops went home in 1870." Folmar, who was also chairman of Alabama's Republican Party, rejoiced in my departure.
Even though I served only one four-term on the council, I investigated and brought a halt to a spree of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men. I ended the city's infamous "debtor's court," which jailed poor defendants who could not pay their court fines. I blocked a 1980 redistricting plan that intentionally discriminated against the city's black voters. I blocked the reappointment of the city court's chief judge, who was an open and notorious racist. I ended the city's misuse of tens of millions of dollars in federal community redevelopment funds, most of which had been diverted from poor black neighborhoods and spent in the richest white areas of the city.
From 1979 to 1983, I formed a city council committee of one person (me) to conduct nearly a dozen in-depth investigations into misconduct or malfeasance by police officers and other top city officials. I had a city council commission and a police department ID, and I used these credentials to aggressively protect and serve communities of color, women, poor people, and the budding LGBTQ political community.
I published numerous reports of official misconduct by top city officials and had them spread across the minutes of city council meetings at the conclusion of my investigations. These reports had the purpose and effect of curbing runaway racism and corruption in the administration of city government.
My hard fought battles to provide equal city services to Montgomery's 40% black population were met with massive resistance from Mayor Folmar. They also made me extremely controversial and unpopular with many of the city's ultra conservative white residents. While I won my council district seat with 74% of the vote in a crowded field of seven candidates, including a popular incumbent, my favorability rating in the white community never peaked above 20%.
Unlike most of today's black elected officials in Alabama (and elsewhere), my phone number was publicly listed while I served on the city council and I answered it myself. I was accessible at city hall, at church, at community meetings, or at home. Constituents did not have to go through a staff assistant or aide to schedule a meeting with me.
When Mayor Folmar made his comment about the Union troops going home in 1870, I knew exactly what he meant. The Calvary that protected Montgomery's black community from 1979 to 1983 was leaving. I was moving the headquarters of my political operations and legal services from Montgomery to Birmingham to protect and serve an embattled Richard Arrington, Jr., the city's first black mayor.
Birmingham Was the "Johannesburg of the South"
I opened my office in Birmingham in 1985. Within a year or two, the hatred I experienced from whites in the Jefferson/Shelby County metro-area exceeded anything I had know in Montgomery. They did not want me advising or representing Mayor Arrington. From the moment I took that job, the hatred was non-stop, gutter-level, and overtly racial. Mail from these haters was addressed to: "The Mayor's Nigger Lawyer, Birmingham, Alabama" and would be delivered to my office by the U.S. Postal Service even though no street address was provided by the senders.
Some of the state and federal judges in Birmingham routinely referred to me behind my back as, "the Nigger lawyer from Montgomery," a label I first endured during the early years of my legal practice. When a white lawyer tried to physically attack me in a Jefferson County courtroom because I smiled with pleasure at the progress I was making in trying my case, the judge banged his gavel and reprimanded me for smiling, as opposed to scolding the white lawyer who was attempting to hit me.
If there was any question about how Birmingham's white business leaders felt about me, they made it crystal clear to me in a meeting I had with local business icon, Henry Goodrich, at his Southside private office. Goodrich opened the meeting with a racist monologue that lasted for at least 15 uninterrupted minutes. According to him, leaders in the white business community had chosen him to speak to me because there was "nothing I could do to [him]."
Goodrich called me a "troublemaker" and "outside agitator" who was stirring up Birmingham's black community and making trouble in the city. He claimed that blacks in Birmingham were happy with the way things were and that their relationship with the white community was great. Near the end of the meeting, Goodrich referred to me as "Rasputin," the man who was an influential advisor to Nicholas the Great (the last Czar of Russia). He told me to get out of town or "they" would run me out of town.
Well, I did not leave Birmingham. Today, Henry Goodrich is dead, but his spirit lives on.
A Succession of Bigots in the Eugene "Bull" Connor Tradition
Mr. Goodrich's spirit lived on in Birmingham in a succession of bigots who became torchbearers for white supremacy in the Eugene "Bull" Connor tradition. Connor was the city of Birmingham public safety commissioner who unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in the early 1960s.
Two of the most prominent torchbearers in the Bull Connor tradition were Frank Donaldson, who was elevated to the position of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1981, and Lloyd Peoples, who was the First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, from 2017 to 2020.
Donaldson, who is now deceased, was forced to retire as U.S. Attorney after he engaged in a litany of COINTELPRO activities from 1988 to 1992 against Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham's first black mayor. Donaldson replaced Bull Connor's use of police dogs and fire hoses against civil rights activists with a Blitzkrieg of grand jury subpoenas and his ruthless harassment and abuse of Arrington's aging mother.
Peeples, who has successfully burrowed himself into the U.S. Attorney's office in 2021 as a career prosecutor, targeted successful black entrepreneurs. Birmingham federal judges affectionately coddled Peeples and turned a blind eye as he executed an unrestrained COINTELPRO agenda very similar in nature to Donaldson's.
No one can explain why Peeples, who owned and operated a small pizza restaurant that failed during its first year in business, was placed in charge of running the huge, multi-million dollar per year U.S. Attorney's office for the Northern District of Alabama. At the time of his appointment, Peeples' only credentials for this top federal prosecutor's job appeared to be: (a) his white skin, (b) his hostile attitude towards successful black entrepreneurs, and (c) his willingness to become a full participant in the restoration of white supremacy in the the Northern District of Alabama.
What is worse, Donaldson and Peeples plowed their trade in the same federal courthouse that showcased a public shrine in 2019 to one of the most racist federal judges in Alabama -- Judge Edwin Nelson.
Emory Folmar's analogy of my departure from public office to the Union troops returning home in 1870 did not make sense to me in 1983, but it does now. Folmar was signaling a return to white supremacy. This is what happened in 1870, and it is happening today.
The most prominent symbol of white supremacy in 2021 is found in the composition of the state's three appellate courts -- the nine-member Alabama Supreme Court, the five-member Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, and the five-member Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. All nineteen justices and judges on these courts have been white since January of 2001.
Every gubernatorial appointment to a vacancy on these courts since 2001 has been white. Every justice or judge elected since 2000 has been white.
The white oligarch that runs Alabama does not pretend that a black will ever be seated on these courts in a state that is 26% black. They don't even want a Clarence Thomas-like "Uncle Tom" serving on these courts.
Except for Mayor Steven Reed of Montgomery, County Commissioner Albert Turner in Perry County, and a handful of other courageous black officials, most of the other black elected officials in Alabama suffer from psychological castration. They are nothing more than impotent political eunuchs.
Furthermore, the few black state court trial judges who have tried to provide equal justice in their courtrooms have been brow-beaten or forced off the bench by the state's judicial kingpins. Former Jefferson County Circuit Court judge Tracie A. Todd is a case in point.
The major difference between the restoration of white supremacy in Alabama in 1870 and its restoration today is this: White supremacy in the modern era is thriving in Alabama because black elected officials in state are too weak, too compromised, and/or too complacent to fight it.
Alabama's dramatic return to white supremacy in the modern era would make Emory Folmar proud. As an African-American who also has some Native-American and white blood running through his veins, it makes me very sad.