Portrait: Charles (Chuck) Morgan, Jr.

Charles Morgan III looks back.

Gail Short

It could have been a novel. A young, idealistic lawyer in the Deep South takes a stand against racism and the white elites determined to silence him and maintain their privilege over Black citizens. 

But for Charles Morgan III, the story was real. His father was attorney Charles “Chuck” Morgan Jr., who in 1963, at age 33, made a courageous stance against racism and paid a personal price.

“My dad was a lawyer,” says Morgan. “His hero was Clarence Darrow. My dad was a courtroom attorney, a gunslinger type of attorney who believed that people needed to be represented.”

Charles Morgan Jr., was born on March 11, 1930, in Cincinnati to a family originally from eastern Kentucky. The family, says Morgan, was fairly neutral when it came to matters of race. 

“They didn’t have a dog in the racial fight,” his son says. “They didn’t have enough money to worry about any of that stuff. They were just trying to survive.”

But while Morgan’s father was never a “liberal firebrand,” his grandfather did instill in Chuck Morgan an overall sense of fairness.

Chuck Morgan moved with his family to Birmingham when he was a teenager. He graduated from the University of Alabama and later earned a law degree from the school in 1955.

As a young, corporate attorney, Morgan hated the injustice he saw around him in Birmingham and often took on pro bono cases representing indigent Black clients. 

He also was disturbed that while Birmingham smoldered in racial turmoil with Klansmen and white city leaders subjecting Black citizens to bombings, police dogs and fire hoses, Atlanta, with the slogan, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” was progressing.  

My dad was..a gunslinger type of attorney who believed that people needed to be represented.

“In a real sense, being a proponent of Birmingham, he knew a lot about economics and saw how Birmingham had been hindered by the fact that in 1963 a Black child was born into the life of segregation, from the hospital ward where they were born to the schools they went to, to the cemetery where they were buried,” Morgan says. “They were even excluded from the newspaper in the obituary columns.”

On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young Black girls who had been preparing for church in a downstairs bathroom and injuring others. 

The savagery of the attack angered Morgan so much that the next day, while attending a meeting of a Birmingham civic group called the Young Men’s Business Club, he stood up before a white audience and delivered a speech denouncing the violence.

“Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful, worried community asks, ‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb?’ The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and the ones last month, last year, a decade ago. We all did it.”

…‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb?’ The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’ ” 

Morgan ended his address with these words: “Birmingham is not a dying city. It is dead.”

After his speech Morgan and his family found themselves the targets of condemnation and death threats. In fact, the reaction to his YMBC speech was so intense that he and his family soon left Birmingham and moved to Atlanta.

Charles Morgan III was eight years old at the time of his father’s speech but says his parents shielded him from much of the turmoil. 

In fact, he remained unaware of the full extent of the danger his parents faced until 20 years ago when he helped his mother move some filing boxes, he says. 

“We opened them up and there were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of hate mail that they had received shortly after that speech,” Morgan says.  

In Atlanta, Chuck Morgan went on to a career as a civil liberties attorney with the ACLU. He gained notoriety for arguing the U.S. Supreme Court case Reynolds vs. Sims that forced the state of Alabama into more equitable legislative redistricting. 

Morgan also represented Julian Bond, a newly-elected Black representative whom the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1966 refused to seat because Bond had publically stated opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. 

He was also an attorney for heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, whose world title had been taken away after he was convicted of dodging the draft in 1967. Ali had cited religious reasons for not joining the military. 

Morgan died in 2009 at the age of 78.

Today, Charles Morgan III is a restauranteur living in Destin, Fla., but he visits Birmingham frequently to speak to civic groups. He is also a board member of a new nonprofit called The Morgan Project. 

The Morgan Project, named in his father’s honor, aims to advocate for the rights of minorities and teach tolerance and social justice. 

When asked if his father would be pleased with the Birmingham of today, Morgan says he would likely say more needs to be done. 

“Is it different than it was back in 1963? Yes. But we have not nearly realized the goals of that movement and it’s a never-ending battle. Back then, Blacks couldn’t vote, or serve on juries. Now they can.”

And racism remains a stubborn problem across the nation…

And racism remains a stubborn problem across the nation, he says.

“Today we’ve got restrictive actions in place all across this country to make it harder to vote after people gave their lives and fought really hard just to get the right to vote. And police departments aren’t all white anymore, but we’re still having problems with police departments and the way they interact with people of color.”

Through his courageous speech nearly 60 years ago, Charles Morgan Jr., continues to serve as a model for every citizen to aspire to be.  

Learn more about Charles Morgan Jr., and listen to his 1963 speech here.

Credit to learningforjustice.org, which is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

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