Civil rights attorney Charles Morgan Jr. dies

Published 12:34 pm Thursday, January 8, 2009

Charles Morgan Jr., a civil rights-era lawyer from Alabama who represented Julian Bond and Muhammad Ali and argued for the “one man, one vote” principle that redrew political maps, died Thursday. He was 78.

Family members said Morgan, known as Chuck, died at his home in Destin, Fla., of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

A native of Birmingham who fought that city’s segregationist leaders in the early 1960s, Morgan opened the American Civil Liberties Union’s Southern Regional office in Atlanta in 1964 and became legislative director of the ACLU’s national office in Washington, D.C., in 1972.

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In an Alabama reapportionment case known as Reynolds vs. Sims, he won a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required voting districts to be equal in population, a blow to the political power of rural legislators who until then dominated the statehouse.

“It ended gerrymandering,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. “It became a bedrock principle for voting rights. It changed the complexion of the South and the country.”

The case was one of a handful that made the “one man, one vote” principle part of federal law and protected the political voice of voters in growing urban centers.

“Chuck was a true giant of the legal profession,” said Cohen, who once worked for Morgan’s Washington law firm. “He was a creative genius and he was relentless in his pursuit of our Constitution. He was also an incredibly brave man and eloquent man.”

Morgan’s legal career with the ACLU included several important civil liberties cases of the 1960s. He successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 on behalf of Bond, a black political leader refused a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives because of a statement opposing the Vietnam War.

“He was a giant who remade the South through the courtroom as Martin Luther King remade it through marching feet,” Bond, the current chairman of the NAACP’s national board, said Thursday.

Morgan was part of the Ali legal team that successfully appealed to the Supreme Court after the heavyweight boxing champion was convicted of draft evasion in 1967. Ali was stripped of his world title when he cited his religious beliefs in refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam war.

Morgan also represented high-profile anti-war defendants including Army Capt. Howard Levy, a physician court-martialed in 1967 for refusing to train Green Berets for service in Vietnam. He wrote “One Man One Voice” about his experiences from 1964 to 1976.

Morgan worked with the ACLU in Washington for several years, but left to form his own firm in 1977 after disagreements with the agency. His client list raised eyebrows among some liberals — he did legal work for former Attorney General John Mitchell, trying unsuccessfully to reduce his prison term for Watergate crimes.

He also defended Sears Roebuck & Co. against allegations of race and sex discrimination brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, winning a major federal court fight for Sears against the EEOC.

A University of Alabama Law School graduate, Morgan did political battle against Eugene “Bull” Connor and Birmingham’s segregationist leadership early on, condemning the city’s failures in a widely reported civic club speech after a 1963 church bombing killed four black girls. He wrote about this period in his 1964 book, “A Time To Speak.”