After nearly thirty years on the bench, federal district court judge U.W. Clemon has announced that he will retire at the end of this month. Judge Clemon, 65, is the first African American to serve as a federal judge in Alabama.
U.W. Clemon is one of nine children of Mississippi sharecroppers who migrated to the steel mills of Fairfield, Alabama before he was born. He attended segregated public schools in Jefferson County and decided as a teenager to become a civil rights lawyer after witnessing police brutality in Birmingham.
He attended Miles College, where he helped organize the 1962 boycott of stores in downtown Birmingham. In 1963, he participated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic Birmingham demonstrations and helped to desegregate the Birmingham Public Library. Clemon was elected president of the student body and graduated as valedictorian of the Miles College Class in 1965. He went on to graduate with honors from Columbia Law School in 1968.
Clemon worked as a civil rights lawyer and a member of the Adams, Baker & Clemon law firm, where he specialized in school desegregation and employment discrimination cases. In 1969, he sued legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to desegregate the University of Alabama’s football team. His advocacy in police brutality cases led to the establishment of the Birmingham Community Affairs Committee and the election of the city’s first Black mayor.
Highly respected for his legal abilities and courage in standing up to oppression and injustice, Clemon helped found the Alabama Lawyers Association, established in 1971 as the Alabama Black Lawyers Association, dedicated to the fellowship and professional advancement of African American lawyers.
In 1974, Clemon became one of the first two African Americans elected to the Alabama State Senate since Reconstruction. He served two terms, during which he chaired the Rules and Judiciary Committees and vigorously opposed Governor George C. Wallace’s segregation policies.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Clemon as Alabama’s first Black federal judge in 1980. He was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. He served as chief judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama from 1999-2006, working to increase minority presence on juries and in the court’s workforce. He led the transition to electronic case filing and management and served on the executive committee of the Eleventh Circuit Judicial Council.
The Honorable U.W. Clemon has received numerous awards and commendations, including the Alabama Bar Association’s Judicial Award of Merit, the highest award of the National Bar Association, the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association’s Howell T. Heflin Award, the Drum Major Award of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 2008 Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Soaring Eagles Award. Two streets in Birmingham, and a Birmingham-Southern College pre-law scholarship, bear his name.
Judge Clemon pointed to low pay for federal judges (who make less than first-year associates at many law firms) and the federal courts’ movement away from the advancement of civil liberties and towards unduly long mandatory sentences as reasons why it is time for him to retire. He plans to return to practicing civil rights law in Birmingham.