Vernon Crawford

Vernon Crawford was a prominent civil rights attorney in Mobile.

Vernon Zionchek Crawford was born in Mobile in 1919. Crawford joined the Merchant Marine shortly before World War II. Following the war, he enrolled at Alabama State University. In 1951, after his graduation, Crawford decided to pursue a degree in law from Brooklyn Law School in New York.

Crawford returned to Mobile and opened a practice on Davis Avenue, in the center of Mobile’s African American community. Over the next thirty years, his firm would participate in some of the most far-reaching legal cases of the civil rights era.

Crawford became counsel for the Non-Partisan Voters’ League. One of their earliest legal efforts was the Willie Seals case. Seals was convicted of rape by an all-white jury in 1958 and sentenced to death. The Non-Partisan Voters’ League retained Crawford for the appeal. He argued that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from the jury rolls infringed upon Seals’ constitutional rights and applied for a writ of error. The Alabama Supreme Court summarily rejected Crawford’s argument, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision in 1963 and granted one of the first writs of error in Alabama history. The Seals decision had national ramifications and served as a precedent for the integration of juries throughout the south. Seals was finally released in 1970 after a twelve-year incarceration.

Shortly after the Seals decision, Crawford and the League intervened in another local case. Nathaniel Taylor was charged with the brutal murder of Lillian Kohorn in 1964. Taylor was arrested on the day of Kohorn’s murder for seeking work without a permit and confessed to killing the woman after a thirty-eight hour interrogation. Crawford secured an acquittal after a psychologist testified that Taylor’s mental disability prevented him from giving a voluntary confession. The prosecution had no physical evidence that linked Taylor to the crime and he was released in July 1965. The Taylor case, along with the Seals case, established a strong partnership between Crawford’s firm and the Non-Partisan Voters’ League.

Crawford became a cooperating attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and shifted his focus to civil rights litigation. On March 27, 1963, Vernon Crawford filed suit against the Mobile County School Board on behalf of Birdie Mae Davis, Henry Hobdy, and twenty other African American students. The case officially ended in May of 1997, with the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-running school desegregation cases in America.

James Blacksher, a white graduate from the University of Alabama, joined the Crawford Firm in 1971. He was joined by two other white attorneys, Larry Menefee and Greg Stein who would soon take on most of Crawford’s civil rights work.

In 1975's Bolden v. City of Mobile twelve African American Mobilians filed suit charging that Mobile’s at-large form of government diluted minority voting rights in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Crawford Firm initiated a similar suit, Brown v. Moore, charging that the at-large election of school board members was unconstitutional.

James Blacksher, Larry Menefee, and Greg Stein, the three white lawyers in the Crawford Firm, left to form their own practice to deal specifically with the civil rights cases that Vernon Crawford and the League had initiated over the last fifteen years.

After the conclusion of the Bolden case, Vernon Crawford retired from his legal practice of thirty years and, at the insistence of several prominent African American business leaders, ran for a place on the new city council in 1985. Crawford suffered a stroke during the campaign and died in January 1986. He is remembered as a pioneer litigator in civil rights cases.

In 1989, the University of South Alabama Archives received the Blacksher, Menefee, and Stein Collection, including materials on Birdie Mae Davis, Brown v. Moore, and Bolden v. City of Mobile. In 2005, Vernon Crawford’s widow donated his legal and personal papers to the collection.

External Links