This story was originally published in the 2022 Special Anniversary Edition of Capstone Lawyer as a part of the commemoration of The 50 | 150 Anniversaries—celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the School of Law and acknowledging it was just 50 years ago (in May of 2022) that the first class of African American students graduated from the Law School.
In 1972, Michael Anthony Figures, Booker Forte, Jr., and Ronald E. Jackson became the first Black students to receive a degree from The University of Alabama School of Law. Previously, no law school in the state of Alabama—including the University of Alabama—would accept African American students. In fact, for a time, the State would provide funding for Black students to study law elsewhere.
Civil rights pioneer and attorney Fred David Gray was one such student whom the State of Alabama paid to pursue his legal education in another state. Gray left Alabama to attend law school in Ohio before returning to Alabama where, in 1963, he successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood in their quest to enroll at the University of Alabama. This case played a pivotal role in desegregating public education throughout the State and across the U.S.—eventually opening the door for Figures, Forte, and Jackson to walk across the graduation stage at an Alabama Law commencement ceremony nine years later.
Trailblazers, such as Gray, Figures, Forte, and Jackson—among so many others—each played a major role in initiating a new era at Alabama Law following a century of race-based discriminative practices and policies.
“Change is oftentimes slow, and even painful, for those who muster the courage and stamina to challenge ingrained practices and traditions that are wrong,” said Mark E. Brandon, Dean and Thomas E. McMillan Professor of Law. “But looking back at the progress that has been made over these past 50 years, it becomes evident that the efforts of these early pioneers—including Gray, Figures, Forte, and Jackson—have truly made a difference in the lives of current and future students here at the School of Law. Our responsibility going forward, as the Alabama Law community, is to ensure that all persons have an equal opportunity and resources available to study and flourish at the School of Law.”
During the 2022 Alabama Law Commencement Ceremony—which marked the 50th Anniversary since the graduation of Figures, Forte, and Jackson—the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System conferred upon Gray an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree in recognition of his outstanding civil rights work.
To learn more about Figures, Forte, and Jackson, continue reading below:*
Michael Anthony Figures (Class of 1972): A successful Mobile attorney, Michael Anthony Figures was elected to the Alabama State Senate in 1978. He was re-elected four times and rose to become the first African American individual to be elected President Pro Tempore in 1994.
During his time in the legislature, he was instrumental in many initiatives as he advocated for the rights of the less privileged through education reform, protecting the heirs of small farms, and authoring and championing fair housing legislation. He also played a pivotal role in the “Helping School” license plate campaign which began in 1990. Because of his efforts, more than $600,000 is generated annually for local schools in Alabama.**
In the 1980s, Figures was the lead attorney in a lawsuit against two Ku Klux Klan members convicted of a race-related lynching. In that case, the jury returned a $7 million judgment that bankrupted the United Klans of America. It was believed by many that he would one day be elected the first African American governor of Alabama. Unfortunately, the life of Senator Figures was cut short after suffering a brain hemorrhage that led to his untimely passing in 1996.
When Figures spoke to students, he advocated the three B’s: Be There, Be On Time, and Be Prepared. He believed that most leaders become leaders through a commitment to personal growth that includes building strength of character, embracing high moral values, and acquiring knowledge through education.
Booker T. Forte, Jr. (Class of 1972): Booker T. Forte, Jr., a native of Pickens and Tuscaloosa Counties, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from The University of Alabama in 1969. Three years later, he earned his law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law.
During his career, Forte practiced in the public and private sectors of law. He helped establish the first Legal Services Clinic in the Black Belt region of West Alabama. And as the managing and lead attorney, he represented clients in federal lawsuits in the areas of civil rights, social security, and consumer protection. In 1980, on behalf of the Legal Services Corporation of Alabama, Forte represented a class of plaintiffs incarcerated in the Choctaw County Jail. This suit contained 15 different causes of action based on inadequate or substandard conditions in the jail. The court ordered various forms of injunctive relief, finding that the conditions in the jail violated the right of inmates to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and the right of pretrial detainees to be free from punishment.
Retired Circuit Judge John H. England, Jr. (Class of 1974), who attended Law School with Forte, said his friend and colleague was “courageous and committed in his own quiet and modest way.” After Judge England graduated from Alabama Law in 1974, he practiced with Forte and Law School classmate Sue Thompson in the firm of Forte, Thompson, and England in downtown Tuscaloosa. “We didn’t make a lot of money,” Judge England said, “but we did provide what I would say is a good bit of service.”***
Forte established his private law practice in several West Alabama cities, where he handled cases in criminal law, domestic relations, civil rights, personal injury, torts, workers’ compensation, insurance fraud, and probate.
Forte also served as municipal attorney to the towns and cities across Alabama including Boligee, Forkland, Gieger, and Union. He served as Assistant District Attorney for the 17th Judicial Circuit of the State of Alabama in the prosecution of criminal offenses in Greene, Sumter, and Marengo Counties. He served as Assistant Alabama Attorney General to represent the State of Alabama Department of Transportation and the Sumter County Department of Human Resources. And he served as County Attorney for Sumter County.
The United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit), United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Supreme Court of Alabama, Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals permitted him to practice in their courts. Forte loved and practiced law until the time of his death in 2019.
Ronald E. Jackson (Class of 1972): Ronald E. Jackson is a Birmingham native and life-long resident. He was educated in Birmingham’s segregated Lane Elementary and Ullman High Schools. As a youth, he participated in the 1963 “Children’s Campaign,” to desegregate the City of Birmingham and its public schools. Jackson received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science at Miles College and was an Exchange Student to the College of Wooster. After attending the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) Program at the University of Virginia School of Law, he earned a Juris Doctorate from The University of Alabama School of Law in May of 1972. He practiced law with the firm Hilliard, Jackson, Barnes, Cook, Mixon & Little. In 2008, Jackson was awarded the Public Interest Hall of Fame Award by OBM Watch for his outstanding public interest work in the Birmingham area.*
* Each bio was collected with permission from Ronald E. Jackson and the families of Michael Anthony Figures and Booker T. Forte, Jr. As faculty and staff at Alabama Law, we express our gratitude for their generosity in sharing these details. ** Some info provided by Beyond the Book; Alabama African American History.*** Alabama Law Remembers Booker T. Forte, Jr., https://www.law.ua.edu/blog/news/alabama-law-remembers-booker-t-forte-jr/