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Posted: January 13, 2009 6:23 p.m.

Chuck and the judge

I remember when ...

... Chuck Morgan sat in his shabby fourth-floor office in an aging building on Forsyth Street. Known among reporters as the Bomb-Throwers' Building, the low-rent edifice housed most of the civil rights organizations in Atlanta.

Along about 4 o'clock each day, "Chuck Baby," as he was called, would haul out the bourbon and begin telling invited visitors tall tales from his Birmingham days. He had worked a full day butting heads with segregationist advocates, so he figured a drink or two and a couple of lively stories would not slow him down.

... For the umpteenth time, I lugged a bundle of legal papers relating to the latest civil rights court decision to the posh office of Judge Griffin Bell to ask him to explain, in simple, off-the-record English, what the decisions meant and what impact they were likely to have.

He was happy to oblige, though such conferences between judge and reporter were deemed improper in some circles.

Bell may have considered it a duty to keep the record straight and accurate.

At age 90, Griffin B. Bell died last week in an Atlanta hospital, and Charles Morgan Jr., 78, passed away a few days later at his home in Destin, Fla.

No two lawyers in the modern South had as much positive impact on the region.

Bell, as a federal appellate judge and premier partner in the King & Spalding law firm, set the course and tenor for a successful civil rights struggle that helped free Georgia from its segregationist past.

Morgan was a fire-breathing civil rights lawyer who had been run out of Birmingham in 1963. In a rip-roaring speech to a civic club, young Morgan blamed the city's business and professional establishment for tolerating the strife and violence that plagued Birmingham during the civil-rights years.

Morgan moved to Atlanta and, as an ACLU lawyer, carried on the fight for equal opportunity for all races.

He successfully appealed to the Supreme Court to toss out electoral systems (like Georgia's old county unit system) that watered down the political power of urban Southerners, especially blacks.

Morgan represented newly elected state Rep. Julian Bond when the Georgia House refused to seat him. Bond angered lawmakers by reading a statement at a press conference (from civil rights leader John Lewis, now a congressman) that advocated burning draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. Bond was finally seated.

Morgan openly fought his own bosses in the ACLU for discriminating against all Southerners, white and black. The ACLU fired him, and Morgan went out on his own to make a small mint representing such entities as the Tobacco Institute and Sears. Chuck was one of the finest storytellers and most eloquent lawyers I ever met. He died of complications from advanced Alzheimer's disease.

There may be some irony here. Bell, who died of pancreatic cancer, and Morgan succumbed just weeks after the nation elected Barack Obama president. I doubt if either believed a black American could be elected president in their lifetimes. Obama's victory unofficially signaled the end to one of America's most turbulent eras: the 50-year organized struggle for equal opportunity for all Americans.

Bell was often the backroom guy who had more direct influence on events than a room full of governors and senators.

As a key adviser to Gov. Ernest Vandiver, Bell helped devise a strategy that allowed the governor to skip his campaign pledge to close the schools rather than allow integration. Bell conspired with Atlanta's and Georgia's elected leaders to help the Peach State become the most progressive of the Old Confederacy bloc. As a result, Atlanta prospered as never before.

Bell co-chaired the 1960 Georgia presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. It was the last time Democrats would score such a resounding triumph in Georgia, as they carried the state for Kennedy by an even greater margin than Kennedy took Massachusetts, his home state.

When a Supreme Court vacancy came up, Bell was invariably on everybody's short list, but he never quite made it. Instead, he became attorney general during the Carter administration.

Bell and Carter almost immediately became estranged. The AG showed a bit too much independence in allowing his Justice Department to indict and try Carter budget director Bert Lance for bank fraud. Lance was cleared.

Although he remained a nominal Democrat, Bell was close to the Bush family. He represented George H. W. Bush as his personal attorney during the Iran-Contra investigations of the early 1990s. Bell traveled to Communist-held Nicaragua to defend a CIA employee from a Sandinista firing squad.

The operative, Eugene Hausenfus, was freed after Judge Bell reportedly cut a deal with an Atlanta black leader with close ties to Managua.

It would be easy to say Judge Bell and Morgan were two of a kind. They were not. They were as different in temperament and demeanor as any two attorneys could be. Yet both men devoutly believed in equal justice for all people. Georgia and the nation are better places because Judge Bell and Chuck Baby lived and worked among us.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.


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