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Remembering Vernon Z. Crawford (1919-1986)

Release Date: Jul 30, 2009

New Description

By ASU News Services

For more than 30 years Attorney Vernon Z. Crawford was a pioneer in the legal profession in Mobile County and its surrounding areas. As a highly regarded civil rights attorney, he established Mobile’s first black-owned law firm, founded Gulf Federal Savings and Loan, and originated such important cases as the landmark libel cases of Times v. Sullivan and Bolden v. City of Mobile.

Born in Mobile in 1919, Crawford served as a merchant seaman in World War II. In 1951 he graduated from Alabama State University with a Bachelor of Science degree, and then graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1956.

Returning to Mobile in 1958, he was one of only five blacks practicing law in Alabama and the only one practicing in Mobile. He was an attorney in such key cases as Birdie Mae Davis v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County case, which desegregated the schools of Mobile County; the Alabama Merit System case, involving black Alabama State Dock workers; and the Mobile County Personnel Board cases.

He brought lawsuits in federal court against local restaurants and other food establishments to force them to serve blacks. While working pro bono for a white inmate of Kilby prison, Crawford successfully obtained the first Writ of Error Coram Nobis in the history of Mobile County. Writs of Coram Nobis address errors of fact that were not known at time of trial, or were knowingly withheld by prosecutors from judges and defendants and which might have altered the verdict.

He was active in death row cases and jury discrimination cases. One in particular was State of Alabama v. Willie Seale, in which Seale was freed.

Crawford helped mentor many of the successful black attorneys in Mobile during the latter 1960s and early ’70s -- one of the first being Frankie Fields Smith, who was the first black to serve as a judge in the City of Prichard.

Among his law partners and associates were Mobile County Circuit Judge Cain Kennedy, the first black to serve as a circuit judge in Mobile County; A. J. Cooper, the first black to serve as mayor of the City of Prichard; the late state Sen. Michael Figures, the first black to serve his district; Prichard Municipal Court Judge, James Wilson; James Blacksher and Gregory Menefee, with whom Crawford started the first integrated law firm and where he served as its head.

Crawford was a cooperating attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He continued a successful law practice in Mobile until his death in 1986. His legal papers are preserved today in the University of South Alabama Archives.

In his honor, the black lawyers’ association in Mobile changed its name to the Vernon Z. Crawford Bay Area Bar Association. And he was recently inducted into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame.

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