A true vision of civil rights

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Jun 18, 2003 12:00 AM

"I've been arrested 27 times for civil rights causes," says Alabama State Rep. Alvin Holmes, a legendary African American lawmaker. "I was a field staff member on the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. . . . I am the one who filed the lawsuit to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the state capitol. . . . I am the one who introduced the bill to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday."

And, says Holmes, he now supports Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Republican, for a seat on the Atlanta-based federal appeals court.

"I strongly endorse him, 100 percent," Holmes told me. He has sent his endorsement to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That puts Holmes at odds with northern liberals on that committee, including Charles Schumer, N.Y., Edward Kennedy, Mass., and Richard Durbin, Ill.

At a hearing last week, Kennedy said Pryor's views on issues such as abortion and gay rights were "so extreme" he doubted he could be a fair judge. After asking Pryor if he still believed, as he once said, that Roe v. Wade was "the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law," Schumer was unappeased when the nominee said simply, "I do."

But it wasn't Pryor's views on Roe that attracted Holmes.

"He and I basically share a different opinion on the abortion issue," said Holmes. But, Holmes added, "he stood up for blacks in Alabama when white Democrats wouldn't stand up."

In 2000, Holmes sponsored a ballot measure to strip antiquated language from the Alabama constitution that banned interracial marriage. Whites of both parties evaded the issue. "Few politicians have even mentioned the measure," reported The New York Times two days before the election.

Pryor was an outspoken supporter.

"He was the only white person, public officeholder, in the state of Alabama, who would publicly support it," said Holmes. In a state that is 25 percent black, the measure passed by only 59 percent to 41 percent.

In the committee, Durbin challenged Pryor for supporting "states rights," which Durbin called "the shelter that people who want to practice discrimination rush to."

While defending federalism, Pryor said: "There is no doubt, in the history of the United States, from John C. Calhoun to George C. Wallace, the mantra of states rights has been used as an illegitimate defense of evil, frankly; of racial discrimination in more modern times, and slavery in earlier times."

Chris McNair is another black Alabamian who has witnessed Pryor's sincerity on this issue.

On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, McNair's 11-year-old daughter, Denise, was in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when a bomb exploded killing her and three other girls. It was one of the most heart-wrenching crimes in U.S. history.

Yet, justice was too long denied. It wasn't until 1977 that the first killer was convicted, and it took until 2001 and 2002 to bring his surviving accomplices to trial.

McNair credits Pryor for being passionately committed to the conviction of these terrorists and for naming former Clinton administration U.S. Attorney Doug Jones as a special prosecutor. "Bill Pryor's record on civil rights is being distorted," he said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch.

"I felt that he did some things that he did not have to do, being a Republican, and being a young conservative," McNair told me.

"He's come here to my place, and we've sat down and talked," said McNair. "And I've got to be honest with you, I'm impressed with him."

In Washington, Durbin challenged Pryor to explain his views on church-state issues.

"I have said that this nation was founded on a Christian perspective of the nature of man," said Pryor, "that we derive our rights from God and not from government. And part of that perspective is that every individual enjoys human rights without regard to what the majority wants."

That sounds like something Martin Luther King Jr. wrote 40 years ago in the Birmingham jail. "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God," wrote King, citing St. Thomas Aquinas.

It is this philosophy that leads men like Pryor to a true vision of civil rights: All men deserve equal protection of the law, whether white or black, born or unborn.

Chris McNair, like Alvin Holmes, is a Democrat who disagrees with Pryor on many issues. But when I asked him what he would say to liberals such as Schumer, Kennedy and Durbin who oppose Pryor, he said: "They don't know the man. That's what I would say to them."