Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer (1931–2015)
Solomon Seay Jr.
Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer
December 2, 1931
September 11, 2015
Howard University Law School, Livingston College
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Solomon S. Seay Jr.
CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER
'THE NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN'
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Solomon Seay Jr. is a prominent civil rights attorney who worked on cases involving the Selma to Montgomery March, the Freedom Riders and public school desegregation in the landmark Lee v. Macon decision.
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“I came awfully close to death's door not long after I ventured into Chilton County wielding only my license to practice law. I have never been afraid to die ... The battle for civil rights is far from over ... and my soul still stirs to be on the battlefield.”
—Solomon Seay Jr.
Solomon Seay Jr. - Civil Rights Lawyer (TV-14; 2:06) Solomon Seay Jr. was a prominent Civil Rights attorney in Montgomery, Alabama who worked on cases involving the Selma to Montgomery March, The Freedom Riders, John Lewis and the Lee vs. Macon public school desegregation.
Born on December 2, 1931, in Montgomery, Alabama, Solomon Seay Jr. is a pioneering attorney who, after receiving a law degree from Howard University, returned to Montgomery in 1957 to represent civil rights cases. At the time, he was one of only three African-American attorneys in Montgomery, along with Fred Gray and Charles D. Langford. Seay worked on cases involving the Selma to Montgomery March, the Freedom Riders, and public school desegregation in the landmark Lee v. Macon decision, among many other civil rights cases in his 50-year career. His memoir, Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer, was published in 2009. He died on September 11, 2015 at the age of 83.
African-American civil rights attorney Solomon Seay Jr. was born on December 2, 1931, in Montgomery, Alabama. Seay's mother was a schoolteacher. His father, Solomon Seay Sr., was a civil rights activist and a renowned minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. While in junior high school, Seay recalls being inspired to activism by a teacher who completed her recitation of the pledge of allegiance to the flag with "liberty and justice for those who got the guts to grab it!" Seay thought if he could go to law school and practice law he "could stop the world and get the rules right."
As an undergraduate, Seay attended Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. After graduating from Livingstone in 1952, he attended Howard University School of Law in Washington, DC. His tuition, room and board, books and cost of living expenses were paid for by the state in order to deter blacks from applying to law schools in Alabama. Although his attendance was interrupted by 21 months of Army service, Seay graduated from Howard in 1957.
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Civil Rights Lawyer
Seay returned to Montgomery that summer, and began preparing for the Alabama bar exam. After passing on the first attempt, he praticed law at his own firm from 1957 until June of 1964 when attorney Fred Gray approached Seay to join his firm. At the time, Seay and Gray were two of only three black civil rights lawyers in Montgomery, the third being Charles D. Langford. In 1955, Gray and Langford represented civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the year-long Montgomery Boycott that would finally result in the desegregation of the Montgomery public transportation system.
In 1957, Seay represented Mark Gilmore, a young man who was arrested, beaten and held prisoner for taking a shortcut across the all-white Oak Park. The case turned into a class action lawsuit against the City of Montgomery Unfortunately, rather than desegregating the city's parks, the city responded by closing all of Montgomery's parks to the public for the next nine years.
'The New York Times v. Sullivan'
Seay Jr. and Gray represented four African-American ministers including his father Reverend Solomon Seay Sr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and Joseph Lowery in the case of The New York Times v. Sullivan. The case involved Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan, who sued the newspaper and four defendants for printing a defamatory ad written by Bayard Rustin. When Sullivan won the case in Alabama, The New York Times appealed, arguing that its right to print the ad was protected under the first amendment. As a result of the ruling in Sullivan, U.S. libel law was rewritten. Seay, worked on another Supreme Court case in 1964, when he defended the plaintiff in the case of Lee v. the Macon County Board of Education.
For the next two decades, the firm fought against the unjust denial of the rights of African-Americans, including racial discrimination in the work place, police brutality and harassment by hate groups.
Seay mourned his father's passing in 1988. In 2006, Seay's wife of 53 years, teacher Ettra Spencer Seay passed away. The couple had four children. One child passed away at 12 months.
Seay's memoir, Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer, was published in 2009, receiving positive reviews.