Tuesday, March 5, 2013 was the annual Sojourner Truth lecture. This year’s lecturer was Judge Helen Shores Lee. Judge Lee grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s. Her presentation, entitled “Journey to Equality: Reflections on growing up in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement, “was guided in part by her recently published memoir: The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill: The untold story of Arthur Shores and his family’s fight for Civil Rights. Judge Lee used the opportunity to share stories from her childhood in order to make bring the events of one of the most tumultuous times and cities real for an audience that included many who were not yet born during this era. And, for others, it was reminiscent of their own experiences growing up, even in Virginia in the 1950s. She shared stories of not being able to visit KiddieLand Park, which was only open to Whites, daring to drink from a “Whites” only water fountain, and moving the marker denoting the white and “colored” sections of the bus so that she could sit down.
Judge Lee’s father, Arthur Shores, was a prominent Civil Rights lawyer and as a result Judge Lee grew up with both privileges—like having other prominent African Americans, including Thurogood Marshall, as mainstays in their home-- as well as considerable violence. Much of the violence and threats to the family’s safety were a result of the high profile cases her father was involved in. For example, In one of his most well-known cases, Mr. Shores represented Autherine Lucy, an African American woman who wanted to attend the University of Alabama. He was successful in this case, but since the University could not guarantee Lucy’s safety, she did not have the opportunity to finish her education. Judge Lee said that because her father was so involved with the civil rights movement it made her family a target for the Ku Klux Klan. She then told stories about the safety and escape routines they had to establish when people would shoot at or bomb their house. For Lee, the breaking point came one day when she and her family were sitting on the porch and a car full of White teens kept stopping in front of her house calling them names and shining lights in their faces. Lee could not stand for this type of treatment anymore, so she crept inside to get her father’s gun. When the teens returned, she attempted to shoot one. Fortunately, her father knocked her arm throwing off her aim. He explained to her that if she had hit one of them she would have gone to jail for life and there would have been nothing he could do to help her.
Judge Lee also shared some stories that illustrated the ways that she uses her position on the bench of the 10th Judicial Circuit to bring about social justice.
As compelling as the stories of her youth were, Judge Lee ended her remarks with an examination of contemporary issues in the United States. Judge Lee stressed that racism is still alive and thriving in the world today. “Yes, we have made significant gains in the struggle for equality, but let me remind you that the extension of American democracy is not complete. The American dream for all has not been realized. It is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. We must have the ability to walk through those gates.” She urged people to continue fighting this inequality by becoming engaged in the community, not to being afraid to call out racism when you see it, and learning history which is important because no one can have a vision for the future if we do not know and understand our past. Lee also calls for finding common ground both among Americans and between nations. In her words, “It doesn’t matter if you are a dove or a hawk. You’re just another bird living in the same environment”.
March 08, 2013