Books
11:28 am
Mon January 5, 2009

Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer, by Solomon S. Seay, Jr.

Solomon Seay did not wish to write an autobiography or a memoir and he has not. This volume is, as the subtitle indicates, a collection of anecdotes, mainly stories from his decades as a civil rights attorney in Alabama, mainly from 1957 to 1977. In a way, this format is more effective than a regular biography, because the day-to-day life of almost anyone is not that interesting. Seay's book is, then, a series of dramatic scenes, which are, I think, what we remember most from histories and biographies anyway.

Solomon Seay did not wish to write an autobiography or a memoir and he has not. This volume is, as the subtitle indicates, a collection of anecdotes, mainly stories from his decades as a civil rights attorney in Alabama, mainly from 1957 to 1977. In a way, this format is more effective than a regular biography, because the day-to-day life of almost anyone is not that interesting. Seay's book is, then, a series of dramatic scenes, which are, I think, what we remember most from histories and biographies anyway.

In the autumn of 1957 Solomon Seay passed the Alabama bar exam, becoming one of ten black lawyers in the state. He had served in the U.S. Army, attended Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., courtesy, and I use the word ironically, of the people of the state of Alabama since the legislature had decided to pay for the out-of-state professional education of Alabama African-Americans, both tuition and living expenses, rather than integrate the law, dental, or medical schools. This was presumed to meet the requirements of the separate but equal doctrine established by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.

After passing the bar, Seay went into practice, and the work was endless. In September of 1957 he represented young Mark Gilmore, who had been arrested and beaten and held for two weeks for cutting across segregated Oak Park in Montgomery on his way to work. Seay won a class action lawsuit against the city park commission in the courtroom of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. The city responded by closing all city parks, to all citizens, for nine years, until 1967.

In the course of that trial, an emissary of the city establishment came to Seay's office with "an attach? case loaded with more cash than [he] could reasonably expect to earn in the next year or two as a black civil rights lawyer." Seay rejected the bribe and went on to win the lawsuit.

It was not just politicians that Seay had to fight. Sometimes it was the Alabama Bar Association itself. At the annual meeting in 1964 in Mobile, Seay and his wife were allowed, due to the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act, to register at the Admiral Semmes Hotel. They were not, however, able to buy tickets to the Bar Association banquet. That was still segregated.

The stories in this book run from the humiliating to the deadly. Seay tells of the indignities of separate drinking fountains and restrooms, and of being told by the band director that his daughter had the wrong kind of lips for playing the flute, but also of Klan-sponsored murder in Chilton County. Seay defended black clients whose property was being unfairly seized by Opelika city authorities and picketers in Eufala denied their right to free assembly. He tells the story of forcing the integration of schools in Marengo County, which "fought harder than any other school system to maintain segregated schools."

Throughout these somewhat familiar stories one unusual thread runs through. Although the Rev. Solomon S. Seay, Sr. was a colleague of Dr. King and also a subscriber to nonviolence, Solomon Jr. was not. Six foot three, from time to time Seay expresses his willingness to defend himself and his family. He instructed his children not to remain passive when confronted with slurs or abuse, asserting that "liberty and justice [are] only for those who got the guts to grab it!"

In the Union of South Africa, after the end of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Although the results are mixed and disputed, by both sides, the story got told. The story of the Civil Rights Movement in America has come out differently, bit by bit, in histories and biographies and small books like this one. One day the picture may be complete.

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