The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did not make many political endorsements. As the most recognized leader of a civil rights movement that enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans at the national level, and as a key player in the often life-and-death struggle to end American apartheid, he tended to stand above the political fray.
But in the spring of 1966, King traveled to Alabama with the explicit purpose of making an endorsement in the Democratic primary for governor. The man whose candidacy King supported was Richmond McDavid Flowers, one of the first “Deep South” politicians to embrace the promise of the civil rights movement.
Flowers died last Thursday at age 88. At the time of his passing, Flowers was an all-but-forgotten figure.
While others who lacked his courage or his prescience are now regarded as elder statesmen of the South, Flowers lived his last years in the obscurity reserved for those white southerners who came “too quickly” to the conclusion that Jim Crow had to go.
In a more just circumstance, Richmond Flowers would be a iconic figure — not just in Alabama but in a nation where those who rejected racism in dangerous times and places ought to be seen as the greatest Americans.
In a period when so many around him failed and faltered, Flowers stood tall.
He was not merely a gubernatorial candidate in 1966. He was the elected Attorney General of Alabama, the chief law enforcement officer in a state that in the mid-1960s was wracked by Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence.
But, despite the fact that he had crosses burned in the lawn of his family home, Flowers refused to back down.
On the same day that Governor George Wallace has promised in his 1963 inaugural address to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent integration of the University of Alabama, Flowers had refused to stand with Wallace. The governor declared that day, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The Attorney General responded, “Alabama’s soul will soon be laid bare before the world. God grant that we may not be ashamed of it.”
Alabama would be shamed, by Wallace and by the murderous Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils that fought integration with the gun, the boycott and the ballot box.
Flowers, a one-time segregationist who chose the rule of law over the rule of the mob, would stand against them.
When local prosecutors failed to seriously pursue cases against the murderers of civil rights workers such as Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Jonathan M. Daniels, Flowers exercised his authority as Attorney General to supersede the local lawyers. Then he marched into county courtrooms across Alabama and, as Time magazine reported in 1965, “Relentlessly, Flowers and an assistant questioned each prospective juror, asking him whether he thought the white race superior to the Negro, whether he felt that any person like Mrs. Liuzzo who associated with Negroes thereby made herself inferior to other whites. Over vehement defense objections, Judge [T. Werth] Thagard let Flowers get his answers. In short order, Flowers established that of 30 veniremen available for the jury, eleven felt that white civil rights workers were indeed inferior. Then Flowers dropped his bombshell. He demanded the right to challenge all eleven ‘for cause.’ ‘How can the State of Alabama expect a fair and just verdict in this case from men who have already sat in judgment on the victim and pronounced her inferior to themselves?’ he asked.”