Birmingham, Ala. (WIAT) — “When it’s all said and done his name remains,” were the words spoken by Michelle Clemon in 2021 when Jefferson County School District opened the new U.W. Clemon Elementary School.
The school is named for Alabama’s first Black Federal Judge. “When superintendent Pouncey first told me the news, I could hardly believe it. But I came to accept reality and I am eternally grateful to him and the school board for that most significant honor,” Judge Clemon said.
U.W. Clemon’s lifelong fight for equality can be found in a simple phrase he lives by: “‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and that is pretty much what my life has been about and a principal that will always guide me in my thinking.”
Clemon said he believes each person is called upon in his or her own way to bring about equality and justice for all of us: “Much of it came from my background. My mother barely finished a third-grade education on a Mississippi plantation and my father didn’t go to school at all, but they both wanted something better for their children.”
His parents left Mississippi two years before he was born and started s life in Westfield, Alabama, a U.S. Steel Company Town. He and three siblings were afforded some advantages that Clemon said some blacks were not exposed to at the time including baseball diamonds, basketball courts, even tennis courts. Major League Baseball star Willie Mays learned to play baseball in Westfield.
“While there were whites living in Westfield. It was more equal for Blacks than for whites. Because there were three schools for Black kids. White kids were bused out,” said Judge Clemon.
That type of upbringing Judge Clemon said included marvelous teachers like Marjorie Beaton who he credits, along with his mom, for his love of learning. Ms. Beaton encouraged him to read. “At one point she had me bring a barrel of books that I read and reviewed them for the class to give them encouragement,” Judge Clemon said.
He is thankful for his teachers who he said, “gave me the benefit of their education, advise and wisdom, such that when it was time for me to give back I was prepared to do so.”
A major plot point in his life happened when he was 13 years old. Judge Clemon can recall the event that happened while he, his brother Joe and a friend walked from Westfield to the Dolemite neighborhood in vivid detail. The year was 1956. Judge Clemon called it an experience with police indirectly.
“We were walking, and we were stopped by some white police officers from Fairfield,” Clemon said. When the officers drove in front of them and stopped the car, the officer used a racial slur, pointed at the group, and said, “get in the car.” “The finger was pointed at Anthony Bassett. They took Anthony Basset up the road, pointed a gun and made him urinate on himself. And came back and put him out of the car. That experience led to my decision to become a civil rights lawyer,” said Clemon said.
He said when police brought their friend back “for a while my brother Joe, who was never at a loss for words, and I were both speechless. I reflected on just what a tragedy it was, and I suppose, I also thought about how much worse it could have been.” Despite the reality of life in the Jim Crow South, Clemon said “many of us were ever mindful of the 14th amendment and its promise of equality for all regardless of race.” “Some of us were committed that someday we would try to make that promise a reality,” Clemon said.
He said because of his early decision to become a civil rights lawyer he “was not unduly upset when after having invited me over to Birmingham Southern to enroll because of a national scoring on a test I had taken, Birmingham Southern refused my admittance simply because I was Black.” He would later teach a law course at Birmingham Southern and receive an Honorary Doctorate from the school.
His collegiate journey would take him to Morehouse College initially, but he quickly transferred to Miles College, which got a new president in 1961, Lucius H. Pitts. “When I came to Miles College and the students were engaged in these kinds of nonviolent confrontations with evil, I felt right at home,” said Clemon.
Judge Clemon said at Miles Dr. Pitts would have chapel programs three times a week, with most of them dedicated to civil rights. “He’d bring in a speaker or he himself would speak about civil rights. He was the single most important black leader in Birmingham from the time Reverend Shuttlesworth left in 1961 until Richard Arrington became Mayor,” Clemon said.
Judge U.W. Clemon joined other Miles College students, like SGA President Frank Dukes, in organizing a campaign to end segregation in downtown businesses in 1962. It would set up a challenge between U.W. Clemon and the man in Birmingham whose name was synonymous with segregation: Eugene “Bull” Connor, the commissioner of public safety for Birmingham.
Clemon explained that the students began engaging downtown business owners who were feeling the financial pressure of the boycott, which “the Wall Street Journal reported in the week leading up to Easter in 1962, sales were down in the downtown area by 40%,” Judge Clemon said. He added “the boycott got national attention.”
The challenge to Bull Connor arose out of the Miles College Selective Buying Campaign and the students’ discussions with the merchants. Clemon said “they told us they were willing to take down the segregation signs, but they could not do so because there were Birmingham ordinances which required segregation. Ordinances which would later become the model for South Africa.”
The students decided to get a petition and ask the city commission to rescind the segregation ordinance. Clemon was not originally supposed to present the petition, but the other students drafted him to do so on their way to City Hall. So he did.
Judge Clemon said he got up and attempted to introduce himself when, “Bull Connor immediately thundered, ‘where you from?’ And I said I was from Westfield, and he then declared I was an outside agitator, just stirring up things, that I don’t even live in the City of Birmingham, so ‘I couldn’t present no petition.'” Frank Dukes, who by that time had graduated from Miles College, ended up presenting the petition. Clemon said, “at the end of the session Bull Connor said that he was contacting the police to get these (Connor once again used a racial slur) off the third floor of city hall and that Clemon fella better be out of town by sundown.”
Clemon chuckled that it just so happened he was out of town by sundown, because he didn’t live there anyway. Back then there was no chuckling about Connor’s words. When asked if he got out of town because of the threat, Judge Clemon said, “in part yes.”
For U.W. Clemon, the courage of college students of that generation in the face of threats that in some cases cost them their lives was not just because they knew the law was on their side: “We knew that we had great leaders like Martin King, like Andy Young, like Fred Shuttlesworth, like Wyatt T. Walker, who would lead us, like Lucius Hosey Pitts who was right there on scene with us. They gave us courage to go forth and do things we would probably not have done had we been left on our own.”
He would serve as an Alabama State Senator before his eventual appointment to the United States District Court in the Northern District of Alabama in 1980 where he retired as Chief Judge after 29 years on the Federal Bench.
In 2022, Columbia School of Law featured Judge Clemon as one of Columbia’s Lions of Law. The recognition is for Columbia Law Alumni who are noted for making a difference in the world.
Before the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became law it was a legal case that U.W. Clemon argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court overturned Ledbetter’s pay discrimination legal victory concluding that she filed her complaint too late. Judge Clemon said, “it it poetic justice that the principal disavowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the principal that women are entitled to equal pay and that trivialities in the law, technicalities should not be used to mask discrimination.”
Ironically a case he began as a law student in 1964 while working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “Stout versus the Jefferson County Board of Education” is one he is still working on today. That case led to the 1971 desegregation order for Jefferson County Schools and was cited when Gardendale decided to separate from Jefferson County Schools in 2015. “And so we had, when Gardendale decided it was going to created its own school system, I thought a mirror image of what we had in 1969-70, and so I got back in the case. And the rest is history, that case went back to the 11th Circuit, and it decreed that Gardendale could not set up a separate school system.”
When you walk in the door at Jefferson County’s U.W. Clemon Elementary School there are character words on a mural with a larger-than-life image of Judge Clemon. Words that describe him and his lifetime commitment to equality. Words like justice, fairness, humility, fearlessness, excellence, courage, honesty, commitment, compassion, helpfulness, worthiness, cooperation, confidence, and respect.
He wants students to embody those words and know his hope for all of them. U.W. Clemon said, “It’s my hope that students, both Black and white, will learn to appreciate the value of each other, to know that none of them are any better or worse than the rest of them, and have that kind of respect for each other as they move forward in life. I think it would be not only an immense benefit to them personally but to the nation as a whole.”