Lawyer James Nabrit ’52 helped to blaze the civil rights trail

alumni-nabrit52In the racist ’60s, the city of Birmingham, Ala., was using the law to stifle black activism.

A local preacher, Fred Shuttlesworth, had been sentenced to 180 days of hard labor for refusing to move from where he stood in front of a department store. Enter the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and lawyer James M. Nabrit III ’52, who argued and won Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham before the Supreme Court. In its ruling, the court blasted the city, saying its interpretation of the ordinance “bears the hallmark of a police state.”

The case was one of 12 Nabrit argued before the Supreme Court (he won nine, for a nifty .750 win percentage) in an era when the judiciary, not Congress, was the go-to branch for the Civil Right Movement.

“The Congress clearly was not the branch for black people because black people were largely excluded from voting,” Nabrit says. “The Congress was dominated by the Democratic Party and the most senior members were from the South that practiced racial segregation and discrimination.”

In 1965, Nabrit, who had earned his law degree at Yale, helped blaze a more literal route for the movement. After “Bloody Sunday,” in which voting-rights marchers on the outskirts of Selma, Ala., were beaten by state police, a federal court ordered protection for the marchers but demanded a detailed march plan. Nabrit and fellow Legal Defense Fund lawyers, working with Martin Luther King Jr., drew up the now-historic march route from Selma to Montgomery.

Among Nabrit’s favorite cases is a 1968 appellate victory. Cops seeking a murder suspect in Baltimore had conducted 300 raids, mostly in the black community. One man went to bed after watching some New Year’s Day football games. “He woke up at 2 a.m. with a shotgun in his face,” Nabrit says.

Nabrit represented the man in his complaint against the city, and an appellate court ruled that the raids were “the most flagrant invasions of privacy ever to come under the scrutiny of a federal court.”