U. W. Clemon

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U. W. Clemon

Uriah W. Clemon (born April 9, 1943 in Fairfield) is an attorney, a former Alabama state senator and former federal judge. He was the first African American to serve as a federal judge in Alabama, having been appointed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

Clemon grew up in Westfield as the youngest of nine children. His father, Mose was a sharecropper from Mississippi who came to Birmingham to work as a a laborer at U.S. Steel. He spent most of his career as a bricklayer's helper, denied advancement due to his race.

Clemon was the valedictorian of his 1961 class at Westfield High School and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia for a year before returning to Birmingham to complete his bachelor's degree at Miles College. While in school he was one of the leaders of the Miles College Anti-Injustice Committee which participated in the selective buying campaign organized by Frank Dukes, and himself helped to organize a 1962 downtown business boycott. Clemon personally presented a petition calling for an end to the city's segregation laws to the Birmingham City Commission. In 1963 Clemon was assigned to desegregate the Birmingham Public Library during the Birmingham campaign. For his involvement in the protest movement he was labelled an "outside agitator" and ordered by Bull Connor to leave the city.

U. W. Clemon speaking to fellow Miles College seniors in 1965.
He graduated as the valedictorian of his 1965 class at Miles College.

Clemon did leave Birmingham to attend Columbia University Law School in New York on an NAACP-funded scholarship. He graduated with honors and became an Earl Warren Fellow in Civil Rights law. The Foundation payed him to practice in Alabama and he took a job with Adams, Burg & Baker, an integrated firm that was active in local Civil Rights cases.

In 1967 Clemon became a partner with Oscar Adams Jr and James Baker in the newly-established law firm of Adams, Baker and Clemon. He argued in court for the desegregation of public schools and against employment discrimination. He participated in the 1969 lawsuit by University of Alabama Black students against Bear Bryant, which was dismissed only after Bryant began recruiting black players to the Crimson Tide.

Endorsed by the Jefferson County Progressive Democratic Council, Clemon ran unsuccessfully for the Birmingham City Council in 1973. He was elected to represent District 15 in the Alabama State Senate in 1974. He chaired the Senate Rules Committee and the Judiciary Committee, and used that position to challenge the state's use of capital punishment, and promoted more diversity on state appointments. He championed the laws that allowed historically black colleges in Alabama to operate their own boards of trustees outside the oversight of the Alabama Board of Education. He also lobbied federal legislators to oppose a reorganization of judicial circuits in 1977.

Clemon was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama by Jimmy Carter on June 30, 1980. Though the nomination brought mixed reactions from Alabama's congressional representatives and was opposed by the American Bar Association, partly based on false reports about a tax lien. He was confirmed by unanimous votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the U.S. Senate. He rose to become the District's chief judge from 1999 to 2006, succeeding Sam Pointer Jr.

As a federal judge, Clemon issued rulings requiring Alabama counties to improve their jail facilities and medical care. As chief judge he made significant progress in removing barriers to minority participation on federal juries and in increasing the diversity of court staff. Clemon presided in the gender discrimination case "Ledbetter v. Goodyear". After his decision was overturned on statute of limitations grounds, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 to strengthen the law.

Clemon stepped down from the role of chief judge in 2006. He remained on the bench just long enough to submit his letter of resignation to President Barack Obama in January 2009. Afterward he returned to private practice at White Arnold & Dowd, for whom he represented Craig Witherspoon and Sandral Hullett in employment disputes with the Birmingham Board of Education and the Personnel Board of Jefferson County respectively. He also served as a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.

In 2013 he joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a suit filed by Black residents of Jefferson County opposing plans for Gardendale to form a separate school system. Judge Madeline Haikala found that Gardendale had acted in bad faith in pursuing the case and required the city to pay the NAACP's and Clemon's legal fees.

In January 2017 Clemon was hired as 'Of Counsel" to the Washington D.C. firm of Mehri & Skalet. In a February 2022 letter to President Joe Biden, Clemon urged him not to nominate Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the letter he made reference to Jackson's decisions in a 2016 class action suit brought by Black employees of Lockheed Martin, but did not disclose his connection to the firm that negotiated a settlement that Jackson rejected which would have included payments to the firm.

Clemon and his wife, Barbara, have two adult children, Isaac and Michelle. He is a deacon at 6th Avenue Baptist Church and sings in their Men of Distinction Male Chorus.

During his career, Clemon was honored numerous times. Significant honors include the National Bar Associations' C. Francis Stradford Award, Columbia University Law School's Paul Robeson Award and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association's Howell Heflin Award. In 2013 he was presented with the American Bar Association's John H. Pickering Award. He holds honorary doctorates from Miles and from Birmingham-Southern College. Clemon was a founding member of the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

U. W. Clemon Drive and U. W. Clemon Circle in Birmingham's Westchester Estates are named in his honor. Clemon was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2018.

Preceded by:
Alabama State Senate District 15
Succeeded by:
Earl Hilliard
Preceded by:
Sam Pointer
Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama
Succeeded by:
Sharon Blackburn


  • Bass, Jack (July 17, 1974) "Interview with U. W. Clemon". Southern Oral History Program Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library. - accessed October 19, 2008
  • Kilpatrick, Andrew and Peter A. Kopacs (February 15, 1980) "Clemon's top interest is rights" The Birmingham News - via Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
  • Walton, Val (October 19, 2008) "State's first black federal judge U.W. Clemon to retire and leave the bench Jan. 31." The Birmingham News
  • Gordon, Robert K. (January 22, 2009) "Pioneer Birmingham federal Judge U.W. Clemon submits resignation from bench." The Birmingham News
  • Faulk, Kent (July 5, 2013) "Alabama's first black federal judge, U.W. Clemon, being honored by group that had opposed his nomination." The Birmingham News
  • Hannah-Jones, Nikole (September 6, 2017) "The Resegregation of Jefferson County" The New York Times magazine
  • Fair, Bryan K. (December 19, 2017) "U. W. Clemon". Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed February 12, 2022
  • Caldwell, Leigh Ann, Kristen Welker, Kelly O'Donnell & Sahil Kapur (February 11, 2022) "Biden faces conflicting pressures as he closes in on a Supreme Court nominee." NBCNews.com

External links