Leaders in the Court and Community: Z. Alexander Looby, Avon N. Williams, Jr., and the Legal Fight for Civil Rights in Tennessee, 1940-1970

By Sarvis, Will | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Leaders in the Court and Community: Z. Alexander Looby, Avon N. Williams, Jr., and the Legal Fight for Civil Rights in Tennessee, 1940-1970


Sarvis, Will, The Journal of African American History


Z. Alexander Looby (1899-1972) and Avon N. Williams, Jr. (1921-1994) were the most prominent civil rights attorneys working in Tennessee during the post-World War II period. They filed dozens of lawsuits pertaining to school desegregation, racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and other areas. Looby and Williams's work in school desegregation cases alone encompassed every major case in the state (with the exception of Northcross v. Board of Education), and entered the highest realms of legal activity. Federal judges at the circuit, appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court levels cited and considered many of their cases as the post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954) litigation world unfolded. Looby and Williams also followed their civil rights work into the political world--Looby as Nashville city councilman and Williams as state senator--where they became part of the first major resurgence of black lawmakers in Tennessee since Reconstruction. As Professor Bobby L. Lovett argued, electoral poli tics became the next arena in the fight for equal rights, despite suggestions in the mass media from the early 1970s that the Civil Rights Movement ended when sit-ins, mass marches, and freedom rides were no longer the dominant strategy. (1) In this sense, Looby and Williams set important examples by extending their legal skills beyond the courtroom and into legislative bodies. But more fundamentally, Looby and Williams's civil rights work in the legal and political arenas made them among the most important and widely recognized leaders in Nashville's African American community, and beyond. In addition to legal and political activities, they served their community in numerous other ways that included the churches, schools, and civic organizations. (2) Looby and Williams countered a deeply imbedded tradition in this regard, for prior to their work, many (perhaps most) whites and African Americans alike held little respect for black attorneys in general. For Looby and Williams to emerge as prominent community l eaders presented a impressive example to the contrary, to say the least.

AFRICAN AMERICAN ATTORNEYS AND LEGAL ASPECTS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Many historians have tended to neglect the legal aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, when in fact, litigation and other matters related to the law were often crucial determinants of success or failure. For example, the legendary Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott (1955-56) involved absolutely indispensable legal work that fundamentally influenced the final outcome of that historic and symbolic event. (3) In contrast, an absence of legal help often proved disastrous for civil rights activists, particularly when local and state authorities passed discriminatory laws, issued injunctions against activists, sanctioned massive arrests, and otherwise attempted to enforce segregation or disrupt organized protests. (4) As legal scholars Donald Barnett King and Charles W. Quick observed in 1965, "Both positively and negatively, [law] has been instrumental in defining the rights of the Negro in almost every realm of life. (5) Many scholars have almost completely ignored the leadership role of African American attorneys within their immediate communities.

The scholarship has also tended to remain rooted in an earlier, disparaging view of black lawyers, who were unfairly caught in a vicious cycle during the Jim Crow era. Before the mid-1940s, these attorneys struggled for respect against the odds of discriminatory legal education, lack of esteem in the black community, inadmissibility to bar associations, shortage of honorable clients, and mistreatment at the hands of racist judges and court officials. African Americans also suffered discrimination in law school admissions. If they managed to earn a law degree, they immediately encountered further discrimination in the legal system. Since a racist and predominantly white society favored white lawyers in the courtroom, many African Americans were disinclined to hire lawyers of their own race.

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