Local Group on the Move to Battle Racism

Gail Short

In 1963, the day after a bomb exploded at the Sixteen Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four Black girls, a young, white attorney named Charles Morgan, Jr., delivered a speech before the all-white Young Men’s Business Club (YMBC).

In his speech, Morgan said the city’s white leaders had failed to definitively condemn racial hatred and thus were as guilty of cultivating an atmosphere of violence against Blacks as the men who planted the bomb. 

Reaction to Morgan’s speech was swift and brutal. He and his family received so many death threats that they eventually moved out of Birmingham. Morgan later wrote about the experience in his 1965 book, A Time to Speak.

Nearly 60 years after the speech, members of YMBC, which today includes all races and genders, are launching a project that aims to honor Morgan’s legacy with programming that addresses systemic racism and social injustice. 

The idea for the Morgan Project began in 2020, days after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death led to accusations of racism and police brutality and a firestorm of protests across the nation. The protests sparked a conversation among some in the YMBC, says Jefferson County District Court Judge Martha Cook, who is a YMBC member. “The small group of us that banded together thought that in light of what had just happened a week or so earlier, it was well past time for us to speak,” Cook says. “We’ve got to do something and not just say something.” That is when the group began talking about A Time to Speak.

it was well past time for us to speak.

Local attorney and YMBC member Maury Shevin says they wanted to establish a speaker’s bureau featuring knowledgeable people in the community who could talk about issues of racism, intolerance and privilege, including white privilege. “Even more significantly, we recognized that these traits are developed early on in life, and that school-aged children needed to understand the concepts of tolerance and racial justice and what it means to have privilege or to not have privilege,” Shevin says.

Toward that end, the group began to draft a social studies curriculum in Alabama to teach school children concepts of courage and social justice, as well as Birmingham’s racial history. The Morgan Project Board hired historian and consultant Martha Bouyer to craft age-appropriate curricula for children in grades 4, 6, 7 and 11 that would examine concepts such as racial recognition and the true history of the Black experience, from slavery and Jim Crow segregation to the Black prison pipeline and convict labor. The Board also envisions having 11th graders read Morgan’s book, along with other authors such as James Baldwin. 

Meanwhile, Shevin says Judge Cook early on reached out to the Morgan family to ask if the group could adopt the family’s name for the project. The family gave their consent, and afterward, the Morgan Project asked Charles Morgan III to join its board.

“I’m proud of what they did,” says Morgan, “and I’m appreciative that they asked me to join them. I know we all come to the Morgan Project with different backgrounds, but I think that as a group, we feel that education is vital and that recognition of the history of Birmingham is crucial, and that it hasn’t been told. Not that it hasn’t been told correctly; it just hasn’t been told.”

we feel that education is vital and that recognition of the history of Birmingham is crucial

Board member Lisa McNair, whose sister Denise was killed in the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, says she found out about the Morgan Project after spotting one of their Instagram posts last summer. “I had heard of Charles Morgan, and I was always fascinated by what he did,” she says. “So to see that there was an organization with his name on it and doing wonderful things, I responded on Instagram to say hi and to ask how I could get involved.

“I’ve read the speech,” says McNair, “and it really moved me. Just knowing that he said that about my sister; he got it. When we have racism and things that are wrong, people who are silent witnesses are just as complicit as the people saying and doing ugly things.” Today, McNair and Morgan are heading up the speaker’s bureau, and are making themselves available to deliver speeches to civic groups. 

The Morgan Project has a six-member board that includes Shevin as president and Henry Nelson, Ph.D., as vice president. In addition, the Project has an advisory board, which includes Cook and former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones. The Morgan Project’s executive director, Ashley Mann, says the Board is now in the midst of fundraising and has hired a director of development. They plan to raise $300,000. “It’s a pleasure serving with the Board,” says Mann, “because I think it’s great that we can all come together and serve as a model for our community.”

Mann says that as a resident of Birmingham and a Black woman, social justice and civil rights have always been an integral part of her life. “I got into the legal field because I wanted to make a change and make a difference and speak up for people who didn’t have the legal knowledge or legal language to work with. So I think it’s fascinating that our organization is named after a man who spoke out, who happened to be white.”

“Chuck Morgan Jr., was a fighter,” says Shevin. “He was a lawyer and an advocate. He took cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. He fought against injustice his whole life. That’s who he was, and I think he would be extremely pleased with what we’re doing.”

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