Oscar William Adams Jr. (1925-1997) was the first Black jurist appointed to the Alabama Supreme Court and then the first African American elected to statewide constitutional office. In addition, he litigated many civil rights cases in his career as a lawyer and was part of the first African American law firm established in the state.
Oscar W. Adams Jr. Oscar Adams was born on February 7, 1925, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Oscar William Adams and Ella Virginia (Eaton) Adams; he has one younger brother. Oscar Adams Sr. was the publisher of the African American newspaper The Birmingham Reporter. His maternal great-grandfather, Frank Threatt, was a state legislator from Marengo County during the Reconstruction era. Adams attended public schools in Birmingham, including A. H. Parker High School, and graduated from Talladega College in 1944 with a degree in philosophy.
Because segregation prohibited African Americans from attending law school in Alabama, Adams attended Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1947. Adams was then admitted to the Alabama State Bar and began a distinguished legal career that would span five decades. Adams married Willa Ingersoll Adams in 1949, and they would have three children. Willa died in 1982 from breast cancer complications, and Adams later married Anne-Marie Bradford. They would adopt Bradford’s two grandchildren.
Adams litigated cutting-edge, complex civil rights and labor cases, and his clients included Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The firm handled school desegregation and discrimination cases, as well as voting rights cases. Notable cases included Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education (1964), Terry v. Elmwood Cemetery (1969), and Pettway v. ACIPCO (1974). Adams and his colleagues pursued these cases in both state and federal courts, and like other civil rights attorneys found that success often did not come on the first attempt. For example, in Baldwin v. Morgan (1957), the white federal district judge did not find issue with the racially segregated bus terminal in Birmingham; in 1958, the appellate court recognized the constitutional unfairness of the practice and reversed the district court’s decision.
On July 8, 1966, Adams became the first Black member of the Birmingham Bar Association, a local professional organization of attorneys. He ran his own law office until 1967, when he went into practice with white attorney Harvey Burg, creating the state’s first integrated law practice. In 1969, Adams and James Baker, an Ivy League lawyer who had distinguished himself as a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia before his mid-life move to Alabama, founded Birmingham’s first African American law firm. Adams and Baker were later joined by U. W. Clemon, and the firm became known as Adams, Baker and Clemon.
Oscar Adams with George Wallace After more than 30 years in front of the bench, in 1980 Adams was appointed to the Alabama Supreme Court by Gov. Forrest “Fob” James to fill the remaining two years of Justice James N. Bloodworth’s unexpired term. With this appointment, Adams became the first African American to serve on an appellate court in Alabama. When he campaigned for a full term on the court in 1982, members of the largest bar associations in the state endorsed his candidacy over that of three others by an overwhelming margin. Elected by popular vote in 1982, Adams became the first African American elected to a statewide constitutional office in Alabama. Notably, Adams wrote a special concurrence in Beck v. Alabama, 396 So. 2d 645 (Ala. 1980), the case upholding Alabama’s death penalty statute as consistent with Alabama’s constitution.
Adams retired from the bench on October 31, 1993, and was replaced with the state’s second African American Supreme Court Justice, Ralph D. Cook. After his retirement from the bench, Adams worked with the Birmingham law firm of White, Dunn & Booker (now White, Arnold & Dowd) and served as co-chairman of the Second Citizens’ Conference on Judicial Elections and Campaigns. The city of Gadsden honored Adams by renaming a school Oscar W. Adams Elementary.
Adams died on February 15, 1997, from complications related to cancer and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. He was inducted posthumously into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame (2005) and the Birmingham Gallery of Distinguished Citizens (2008). Adams’s family donated his judicial robe to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where it serves as a reminder of the successes of the movement.
- Justice Oscar W. Adams, Jr. Opening of Court Ceremony 1994-95 Term October 3, 1994, 56 Ala. Law. 32 (1995).
- White, J. Mark. Justice Oscar W. Adams, Jr., 58 Ala. Law. 151 (1997).