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African American History Month

African American History Month in February honors the struggles and victories that changed, and continue to change, America. The federal courts join in the ongoing journey toward justice at every level of the Third Branch of government.

The timing of African American History Month evolved from the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in the second week of February. Historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson framed the concept that became the first Negro History Week in February 1926. It developed into a monthlong commemoration of the struggles and triumphs of the African American community.

Purpose and Perseverance are a Down Payment for Future Generations

Roy Wilkins in press conference with Autherine Lucy and Thurgood Marshall.

Autherine Lucy and Thurgood Marshall in a press conference with civil rights activist Roy Wilkins. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Autherine Lucy Foster, the first African American student to attempt to integrate the University of Alabama, proved that purpose and perseverance can change the future for generations when she earned a graduate degree 32 years after the school expelled her.

When she made history in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s, she was Autherine Lucy, who applied to UA after graduating from Miles College, an historically Black institution of higher learning in Alabama. Lucy then decided to blaze a trail for students aspiring to attend one of the premier – and segregated – universities in the South. With her mind made up, she applied to take graduate classes.

The University initially accepted her written application but revoked it after reviewing the demographic information in which she identified herself as Black. Thurgood Marshall and another respected Civil Rights attorney, Arthur Shores, took her case to the federal courts, and in 1955, U.S. District Judge Harlan Grooms ordered the University to admit her:

“Plaintiffs were denied admission to the University of Alabama solely on account of their race and color,” Grooms wrote. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Grooms’ decision, Lucy prepared herself to attend UA’s College of Education.

Nothing could have prepared her for what happened on her first day of school February 3, 1956. Lucy attended her morning classes without incident, but left campus that afternoon surrounded by a menacing crowd.

During the three days of her college career at UA, violent students prevented her from safely leaving a school building, threatened and heckled her, and threw garbage at her. A hostile crowd surrounded the police car driving her home while she crouched in the back seat.

The next steps in her attorneys’ strategy failed when they brought a lawsuit to hold university officials accountable for the violence. Lucy was expelled on grounds that the lawsuit slandered the institution.

At the time, Marshall wrote to his disappointed client: “Whatever happens in the future, remember for all concerned, that your contribution has been made toward equal justice for all Americans and that you have done everything in your power to bring this about.” For her safety, Lucy lived with Marshall and his wife for a time in New York City.

She went on with her life, married minister Hugh Foster, became Autherine Lucy Foster, and started a family. However, she did not give up her dream of opening the doors of the University of Alabama. In 1988 she was invited by some history professors to return to campus and tell her story. They sought her reinstatement and, that same year, the university rescinded her expulsion.

In 1989, she started classes, again, and later graduated with her daughter Grazia. Lucy Foster received her master’s degree in education 32 years after she was first accepted as a student at the University of Alabama. Today, her legacy lives on in the scholarship that bears her name and in the chimes of the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower on campus.

Judicial Courage and Commitment to the Rule of Law

Rosa Parks’ name is on the marquee of Civil Rights history, but can you name the judge who decided her case and many others that impact American life even decades later?

The basic concept that a good judge has to have is to do what's right, regardless of who the litigants are, regardless of how technical, or regardless of how emotional the issues that are presented are.

Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Probably not. And that’s the way the late U.S. District Court and Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., would have wanted it. After all, he said he was just doing his job – following the rule of law. As he put it: “I'm hired to apply the law.”

The Civil Rights attorney who represented Parks in Johnson’s Alabama courtroom understood the significance of the judge’s courage.

“If we are to get to where we need to be, it’s gonna have to be federal judges who will be able to decide these cases and not be afraid of what someone may say or what might happen,” said Fred D. Gray in a 2015 interview.

Johnson paid a high price for following the rule of law in race-related cases.  He and his family were targets of death threats, a cross was burned on his front yard in Montgomery, and his mother’s home was bombed.  His former law school classmate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, said Johnson was an “integrating, scallawagging, carpetbagging liar.” The Ku Klux Klan called him “the most hated man in Alabama.”

Find out more about this courageous and committed judge in these presentation slides.

Remembering the Girl at the Center of Brown v. Board of Education

Linda Brown, who became the face of children caught in the crossfire of the fight for social change in the 1950s, died last year at the age of 76. The passing of the woman who was the  young plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education reminds today’s youth advocates of the long line of students whose courage has the power to transform social ills.

Upon Linda’s death in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said: "Linda Brown is one of that special band of heroic young people who, along with her family, courageously fought to end the ultimate symbol of white supremacy – racial segregation in public schools."

“She stands as an example of how ordinary school children took center stage in transforming this country," Ifill added.

Linda was just nine years old when her father took her by the hand and walked her to the nearby all-white elementary school, where she was turned away. 

"I remember him talking to the principal and I remember our brisk walk back home and how I could just feel the tension within him," she recalled. At home her father and mother discussed what happened “and I knew that there was something terribly wrong about this," Brown said.

With the help of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP, and a dozen other plaintiffs, Brown’s parents brought a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education that worked its way through the federal courts. Two years later, in 1954, when they won Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court, Linda was in junior high school.

Linda never made the carefree walk of a child on her way to attend the neighborhood elementary school just blocks from her home, but she opened the doors to integrated schools for her younger sisters and for generations of students in neighborhoods across the country.

Judges' Journeys Recall Struggle and Success

Video profiles of these African American federal judges offer perspectives on their experiences during the Civil Rights era.  

The videos are part of the U.S. courts’ Pathways to the Bench series.  In the videos, judges share first-person accounts of their different paths through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and what motivated them to enter the law and, eventually, become judges. 

The profiled judges are:

  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Roger L. Gregory, who attended segregated schools in Virginia, but formed lifelong friendships when his high school was integrated. “We came together and we found the common ground that had been denied us for so long.”
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jeffery P. Hopkins, who moved to Ohio after his uncle was murdered by a Georgia sheriff, whose conviction was later overturned. “My uncle’s case really motivated me to be a part of our justice system,” Hopkins says.
  • Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlander Keys, who worked in the Mississippi cotton fields before serving in the Marines and entering law school. “I started working in the fields at about the age of six years old,” Keys recalls. “It was backbreaking, very hard, arduous work.”
  • U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson, who was born in Topeka, Kansas, the city where Brown v. Board of Education began. At age 5, she decided to become a lawyer, an ambition her father encouraged. “You never can dream big enough,” Robinson says.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson, who battled polio and childhood paralysis. He says that discrimination over his disabilities was even more severe than for his race. “It’s not the good things that happen to you that make you strong,” he says. “It’s when you confront something that you initially perceive as a disadvantage, that’s what builds character.”
  • U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton summarizes the takeaway from these stories when he advises young people: “Don’t let outside forces define you or determine your future.” 
  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann C. Williams, whose parents worked in lesser jobs in Detroit despite holding college degrees. “He drove a bus for 20 years. I said, ‘Daddy, how could you stand that,” Williams recalls, “and he said, ‘I did what I had to do.’”