By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on December 27, 2023
An Editorial Opinion
There was a time when Alabama A&M University presidents had real courage. I personally witnessed tremendous acts of courage and love for the university by two of them – Presidents Richard D. Morrison (1962 to 1984) and John T. Gibson (1996 to 2005).
When I was 14 years old, I accompanied Dr. Richard D. Morrison and my father Dr. Levi Watkins (president of Alabama State University from 1962 to 1981) to Gov. George C. Wallace’s office at the State Capitol for a budget appropriation presentation during Wallace’s first year as governor. I was working as a part-time, unpaid, intern in my father's office.
The meeting occurred several months after Wallace’s infamous inaugural speech that January in which he proclaimed, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Dr. Morrison and my father were not allowed to wait in the governor’s office for their turn to present their budget requests for the upcoming school year. We had to wait in the hallway outside the governor’s office.
At the time, there were no black state senators, representatives, or cabinet members in the first Wallace administration. The only blacks in the Capitol building were janitors and maids, butlers, and delivery “boys.”
The three of us waited for seemed like hours to see Gov. Wallace. I was bored, but Dr. Morrison and my father busied themselves by studying their budget presentations.
Wallace’s finance director came to get us after the governor had finished meeting with the head of the state's prison system about his agency's separate budgets for white and black prisons.
Alabama A&M and Alabama State were the last state agencies that made budget presentations to Wallace, his state finance director, and the superintendent of education (who oversaw Alabama A&M and Alabama State for the State Board of Education).
After we entered Gov. Wallace's executive office, the finance director told Dr. Morrison and my father that Wallace and the official gathered in the office did not have time to listen to any detailed budget presentations from the "Niggra" schools. He told them what money was left after all of the other state agencies had been funded, including the state prisons. The leftover money in the appropriations bill was the funding that Alabama A&M and Alabama State would receive for the next fiscal year.
Dr. Morrison and my father were not allowed to sit down at the conference table in the governor’s office. I watched both men ignore the finance director’s dismissive attitude toward their universities and forcefully plead their case for more money -- all to no avail. Yet, nothing that was said or done by Gov. Wallace and his henchmen broke the fighting spirit of these two HBCU presidents.
Dr. Morrison and my father gave it everything they had on that day, but it didn’t matter. In the end, Alabama A&M and Alabama State were valued less than the state prisons.
I never forgot that meeting and the way those two brave men fought with dignity for equitable funding for their universities.
After I became a lawyer in 1973, Dr. Morrison, my father, and I began to strategize on how we could get equitable funding for Alabama A&M and Alabama State. For the next seven years, we secretly explored and kicked around a lot of legal strategies for reaching this goal. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Morrison developing our game-plan while I was in Huntsville litigating employment discrimination cases for brave local civil rights leaders like Mingo Clark and McKinley Bailey.
After President Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, we knew it was time to implement the legal game-plan the three of us had agreed upon. We would begin the fight by suing Gov. Fob James, Troy State University, Auburn University, the Alabama Public School and College Authority, and the Alabama Commission for Higher Education in the first phase of the litigation. We had to show state officials that we were dead serious about equitable funding for Alabama State and Alabama A&M.
John T. Gibson and His Leading Role as an Original Plaintiff in the Knight Litigation
In 1981, we filed suit in Knight v. James seeking a court order to merge Auburn University at Montgomery and Troy State at Montgomery into Alabama State under the name of "Alabama State University" and under the control of Alabama State's Board of Trustees. We knew this lawsuit would get everybody's attention at the State Capitol, and it did.
Over the next few years, the case grew in scope and size and eventually became known as Knight v. Alabama. This expanded litigation added legal claims for Alabama A&M and sought equitable funding and new academic program offerings for both of the state-sponsored flagship HBCUs.
A critical part of the litigation plan was the selection of plaintiffs who could withstand death threats and would not buckle under gubernatorial pressure. One of those original plaintiffs in the 1981 Knight v. James case was Dr. John Thomas Gibson, my high school classmate. John’s wife Voncile was also my high school classmate.
John T. Gibson has always been super-smart and was born with a backbone of steel. Voncile was a staunch supporter of John’s fight for equitable funding and program offering when John worked as an administrator at Alabama State in the 1980s and early 1990s and when he served as Alabama A&M’s president from 1996 to 2005.
John’s demonstrated courage as an original plaintiff in Knight v. James and later in the expanded Knight v. Alabama litigation is one of the primary reasons why Alabama A&M reaped massive court-ordered benefits from this 25-year court fight.
Our adversaries in the Knight litigation tested John’s courage on many occasions, but they could never break him. They never took John's manhood from him. This is particularly true after John became president of Alabama A&M.
John literally made the forces in Alabama that opposed Alabama A&M’s growth respect his university by actively working and developing the Knight case with the plaintiffs' attorneys. John demanded that all state officials respect Alabama A&M, and he would settle for nothing less from them.
When I watch a compromised chameleon like Dr. Daniel K. Wims masquerading as an Alabama A&M University president today, I sense his betrayal of the courage, sacrifices, strength, and love for Alabama A&M that Presidents Richard Morrison and John T. Gibson showed the world from 1962 to 2005.
Today, President Wims will not go to the State Capitol and collect the $527,280,064 debt that the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture declared on September 18, 2023, is owed to Alabama A&M by the state of Alabama. Wims fears upsetting Gov. Kay Ivey and does not want to risk losing his job by asking for the university’s money. This is a level of cowardice and betrayal I cannot understand or condone.
In my view, Dr. Daniel K. Wims is a weak-kneed president (in name only) who will never fight for what rightfully belongs to Alabama A&M University. Sadly, Wims is Alabama A&M's nightmarish version of Clarence Thomas.