Early on in my life, I was attracted to Birmingham-
Southern College, and aspired to become one of its
I grew up in the “separate but equal” village of Westfield,
Ala., owned by U.S. Steel Corp. U.S. Steel had a “dump” at
Westfield. I sometimes accompanied family members as
they transported discarded scrap iron from the dump for
sale to a dealer in downtown Birmingham, 13 miles away.
The route to the scrap iron dealer always took us past
the BSC campus, sitting so prominently on the Hilltop. I
became enamored of ’Southern as I saw the beauty of its
buildings and grounds, as I read the writings of one of its
professors, and as I listened to the radio programs of its
choir. But having already chosen law as my career, I knew
that my desire to matriculate was not attainable because
Alabama laws and policies closed Birmingham-Southern’s
doors to black students.
But near the end of my first semester as a high school
senior, an amazing thing happened—for a fleeting
moment. I received an invitation from ’Southern in
January 1961 to tour its campus. The invitation was
based on my performance in an essay contest sponsored
by the National Council of Teachers of English. I eagerly
accepted the opportunity and showed up at the appointed
time for the promised campus tour. The somewhat
perplexed admissions official greeted me courteously and
gave me the tour. But afterwards, he regretfully explained
that Birmingham-Southern did not accept black students,
and that they were unaware of my race when they
extended the invitation to me.
So much for my first college preference.
As God so willed, I attended and graduated from
the then-unaccredited, all-black Miles College, where I
became actively involved in the civil rights movement.
Upon graduation from Columbia Law School, I practiced
civil rights law for a dozen years. In 1980, I was
appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first black
federal judge in Alabama, serving in that position for 30
While on the bench, my interest in ’Southern resurfaced.
Much impressed by President Neal Berte, I served on the
college’s Norton Board of Advisors for several years.
Forty-one years after my rejection by ‘Southern,
something else amazing happened, and it was not just a
fleeting moment. This time, I was invited to be the 2003
Commencement speaker. More importantly, with my new
honorary degree from ‘Southern, that year I became an
alumnus of that great institution.
Triumph over a tight rule
by Honorable Retired Judge U.W. Clemon
*Judge Clemon is a shareholder at the Birmingham law firm of White Arnold & Dowd PC. Clemon also has served as
a member of the state legislature and has taught civil rights courses at BSC for many years. The Judge U.W. Clemon
Scholarship was established in 2001 by members of the legal profession in recognition of his exemplary service to the law
and this community. The scholarship assists deserving minority students who plan to enter law school upon graduation.
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