ACLU's Morgan Plays Cowboy To Harvard Law's Puritans

"You can do things for the just society in the United States. The Constitution is a pretty radical document. It just depends on who interprets it." --Charles Morgan Jr., March 4, 1974

WITH A PHILOSOPHY like that, Charles Morgan Jr. seems perfectly suited for a career in civil liberties law, and that is exactly where he has found his niche. Morgan, the director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spent last Monday at Harvard talking to law and pre-law students--who, he presumed, are still in search of niches.

Morgan came at the invitation of Patrick Shea, a personal acquaintance and Mather House's pre-law adviser, who thought the 43-year-old advocate might have a message for prospective lawyers. "I've seen too many students fall into law school because they can't think of anything else to do," Shea said. "I thought Morgan could use his experiences to show them some of the dangers of getting into legal education without a strong personal commitment."

Those "experiences" have taken Morgan before the Supreme Court eight times on issues of individual constitutional rights. And his personal history alone has the makings of a modern American epic.

Morgan came of age as a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, during the years before that city exploded in racial violence. "In Birmingham, I never looked for a civil rights case," Morgan told his student audience. "I wasn't crazy."


Racial tensions in Birmingham culminated in 1963 when four black girls died in the bombing of a black Baptist church. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Morgan delivered a speech denouncing Birmingham's white leadership for encouraging a resort to violence. He soon left town--in the face of threats on his life.

Within a year, Morgan had assumed leadership of the ACLU's Atlanta office, which became a nucleus for ACLU activity in southern civil rights cases during the sixties. From that springboard, Morgan headed the defense in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which established a precedent for federal intervention in state reapportionment schemes--specifically on the principle of one man, one vote. He also argued White v. Crook (1966), which ended the exclusion of women and blacks from juries. The latter case was the first in the current series of constitutional arguments for women's rights.

After his move to Atlanta, Morgan defended such celebrated legal challenges to the Vietnam War as Muhammed Ali's draft resistance and the seating of Julian Bond, the Georgia State Legislature's first black member since Reconstruction. The legislature had voted to reject Bond for his outspoken opposition to the war in his 1966 campaign.

Earlier this month, Morgan faced the Supreme Court to defend the rights of Howard Levy, a dermatologist and army captain who in 1965 refused to train Green Berets on the grounds that combat troops would abuse medical skills. Morgan has chased the case since then under the banner of the Nuremberg principle--that members of the armed forces may legally disobey orders if following them would constitute war crimes. The Court has not yet ruled on Levy's case.

In December 1972, Morgan left Atlanta to head the ACLU Washington office. From there he has sited a new target--Richard Nixon and government corruption--as a sequel to his civil rights and anti-war efforts. Morgan said Monday that "litigation is no longer the most effective weapon" against this target, given Nixon's appointments to the Supreme Court.

He now channels much of the ACLU's time into political organizing for impeachment. A recent ACLU pamphlet listed facts, history and the rules of the House and the Senate on the impeachment process. At local levels, ACLU groups are drafting resolutions for legislators to introduce and working for candidates who oppose Nixon. Morgan himself has begun a speech campaign--Harvard was one stop on a tour that included a Virginia Rotary Club, New York student organizations and Detroit auto workers--urging organization for Nixon's impeachment.

"If the ACLU wants to effect its will today, it has to go through the political process," he said. "From 1954 to 1968 we were singularly blessed with a Supreme Court as an institution of social change. Now the courts want to get rid of cases that involve individual rights of citizens."

SO WHAT DOES a man, who has travelled the path of civil liberties law from its summit during the civil rights movement to its current slump, say to a group of Harvard students preparing to embark on careers of litigation? Plenty.

Facing the sedate group of 30 law students who came to hear him Monday afternoon, Morgan obviously saw himself as the cowboy against the Puritans. He confronted his student audience in his accustomed adversary role--well-practiced over ten years as a defender of individual rights against the majority--and went on the prowl for their weaknesses. He packed his Alabama law degree like a pistol; his work in the South became his white charger; and he mounted up in an effort to ride roughshod over Harvard's best and brightest.

What followed was a rough-and-tumble on the virtues and vices of legal education--among other things. For most of the hour, Morgan held onto the reins, whipping his audience through a succession of personal holdings-forth: Morgan on liberals, Morgan on law, Morgan on Harvard, and Morgan on Morgan.

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