Charles Morgan Jr.; Lawyer Championed Civil, Voting Rights
Friday, January 9, 2009
Charles "Chuck" Morgan Jr., 78, a civil rights lawyer who challenged the racist society of his native South and won numerous landmark cases for equal rights before the U.S. Supreme Court, died Jan. 8 at his home in Destin, Fla. He had Alzheimer's disease.
In a career full of significant cases, Mr. Morgan's most important might have been the "one-man, one-vote" ruling he won in 1964 from the Supreme Court. The case, Reynolds v. Sims, forced the Alabama legislature to create districts that were equal in population, giving black voters a better chance to elect candidates.
He also forced Alabama to integrate its prisons, successfully challenged the Southern practice of barring women and blacks from jury duty, and represented Julian Bond when the Georgia General Assembly tried to prevent the newly elected legislator from taking his seat after he spoke out against the Vietnam War.
"He was one of the most important people" in civil rights litigation, said Bond, now the chairman of the NAACP's national board. "He did in the South through the courts what Martin Luther King did in the streets."
The Reynolds case "ended gerrymandering," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It was one of the seminal cases in the march for voting rights in this country and was the death knell for voting discrimination in the South. Chuck's work in voting rights cases and jury discrimination cases changed the landscape of the South completely."
Mr. Morgan, who opened the American Civil Liberties Union's Atlanta office in 1964 and became legislative director of the ACLU's national office in Washington in 1972, defended some of the most controversial cases of the 1960s and 1970s. He successfully appealed to the Supreme Court the draft evasion conviction of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who opposed the Vietnam War on religious grounds.
Mr. Morgan also represented a number of military clients, including an Army physician who refused to train Vietnam-bound Green Berets. He sued to desegregate his alma mater, the University of Alabama, unsuccessfully sued to overturn the 1966 Georgia gubernatorial election and successfully forced a new election in Greene County, Ala., that led to the 1969 election of six black candidates for local offices.
"I love the Constitution, I love the law, and I have no dislike at all for Southern rednecks, some of my ancestors having been among them," Mr. Morgan told the New Yorker magazine in 1969.
In 1977, he left the ACLU to go into private practice. The lawyer who sued over the federal wiretapping of liberals and led an early movement to impeach President Richard M. Nixon astounded his friends by representing former attorney general John N. Mitchell in an unsuccessful attempt to shorten his prison term. He also represented the Tobacco Institute in a fight against a municipal ordinance banning smoking in public places and corporate clients accused of discrimination.
Mr. Morgan unsuccessfully defended before the Supreme Court an influential Atlanta law firm that promoted male associates faster than female associates. But he won a series of major cases for Sears, Roebuck and Co. over allegations of race and sex discrimination brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"There was no question in my mind but that Sears, for most of its history, had done more for black Americans than the Federal Government. And there's no question that Sears today, with its affirmative action programs, far surpasses all the liberal organizations that I know anything about," he told the New York Times in 1983, dubbing his critics "ideologues frozen in time."
Years earlier, when he was critical of black separatists and criticized by some for not adhering to liberal norms, he quoted a friend's reply to a would-be seductress: "Madam, I shall not alter the pattern of a lifetime for your momentary convenience."