Attorney Solomon Snowden Seay Jr. (1931-2015) played an integral role in Alabama communities and courtrooms in support of the civil rights movement from the late 1950s into the 1990s. Seay most notably participated in court cases aimed at desegregating public facilities in Montgomery, Montgomery County, ensuring that Alabama counties enforced the integration of public schools mandated by state and federal courts, and outlawing disenfranchisement practices dictated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He interceded in numerous other causes around the state where white supremacists threatened the safety and livelihood of African American residents. Seay’s legal activities demonstrate that the civil rights struggle was not restricted to urban areas in the Southeast, but pervaded rural areas as well, and that struggle persists into contemporary times.
Seay Jr. was born December 2, 1931, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, to Solomon Seay Sr. and Carrie Long Seay; he was the eldest of four children. Seay Sr., a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was serving in Greenville, Butler County, at the time of Seay Jr.’s birth, but Carrie wanted her son to be born in Madison Park, an all-black community in Montgomery founded by Carrie Seay’s grandfather Eli Madison, in whose home Seay Jr. was born. Seay’s family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1939 and then to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1943, where his father continued his ministry and supported local civil rights efforts. In 1949, Seay left Knoxville to attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Seay Jr. graduated in 1952 and returned to Alabama briefly before enrolling in the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Rather than allow integration of any state educational institutions, the state of Alabama, through Title 52 of the Code of Alabama, paid for African Americans to attend out-of-state universities for degrees in law and medicine. Soon after entering law school, Seay was drafted in the U.S. Army and served in Korea from 1953 to 1954. He returned to Howard and earned a law degree in 1957 and passed the Alabama State Bar exam that summer. Seay married Ettra Spencer of Galveston, Texas, on August 16, 1953, and together they would have four children.
In October 1957, Seay joined the law firm of Fred Gray and Charles D. Langford, two of the first African Americans allowed to practice law in Montgomery. In his tenure with the firm from 1957 to 1990, Seay Jr. participated in several influential cases that helped shape the course of the civil rights movement, beginning with Gilmore v. City of Montgomery in December 1958. In it, Seay petitioned the city council to desegregate all city public parks following the arrest of Mark Gilmore for trespassing in a park designated “whites only.” The city lost the case, and U.S. District Court judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered the city to integrate all public parks. In reaction, Montgomery mayor William A. Gayle closed all city parks in January 1959, and they remained closed for nine years.
In 1960, Seay Jr., Fred Gray, and Vernon Z. Crawford represented Solomon Seay Sr. and fellow activist ministers Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Joseph Echols Lowery when they were sued by Montgomery commissioner of public affairs Lester B. Sullivan for libel. The case was part of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case that arose when an advertisement in the New York Times critiqued police actions against the city’s African American protesters in 1960. They lost the case in an Alabama court, and with the New York Times, were ordered to pay Sullivan $500,000. The case was appealed before the U.S. Supreme Court under different counsel in Abernathy et al. v. Sullivan, in which that court overturned the previous ruling against the four ministers in 1964. The New York Times also was exonerated then, in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
Seay Jr. also served as co-counsel on the 1961 Lewis v. Greyhound case. In it, Seay and Gray, along with U.S. attorney Hartwell Davis and John Doar of the U.S. Justice Department, filed charges on behalf of John Lewis, Ralph D. Abernathy and other participants in the Freedom Rides against the Greyhound Bus Company when they were arrested for sitting at the white lunch counter in the Montgomery Greyhound bus station on May 25, 1961. While Judge Johnson Jr. indicated that the riders were only arrested because they had violated an injunction that ordered them to leave the city the day before, Gray argued that the arrests violated the clauses of equal protection and due process the riders were granted under the Fourteenth Amendment, desegregation clauses of the Interstate Motor Carrier Transportation Act, and the interstate commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs were finally exonerated in 1965 after the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1965 Williams v. Wallace case (the Williams being civil rights activist Hosea Williams), Seay and Gray, along with Doar, successfully sued Gov. George C. Wallace ‘s administration before Johnson to allow a march from Selma to Montgomery on the basis of the right to assemble and peacefully protest; it occurred on March 19, 1965. Seay later assisted Gray and other attorneys in the 1973 Pollard v. United States case that won a $10 million settlement for patients of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and their heirs.
Seay also worked alongside Gray and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in several school desegregation cases of the 1960s. Most notable was the landmark 1963 Lee v. Macon County Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of public education in Alabama. The two attorneys and the LDF worked together well into the 1990s with cases such as Knight v. Alabama, which originated in 1981 to overturn discriminatory funding practices in higher education. In 1991, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama mandated colleges to change their enrollment and employment practices and to ensure that all public institutions of higher learning received the same access to funding for maintaining their facilities.
In his career, Seay fought many violations of African American civil rights, including the segregation of interstate commerce and education and for voting rights and is remembered as a groundbreaking civil rights attorney for African Americans throughout urban and rural Alabama. In 1999, he authored an autobiography, Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer. Seay Jr. died on September 11, 2015, and was buried Eastwood Memorial Gardens.
Seay, Solomon, Jr. Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 1999.
Gray, Fred D. Bus Ride to Freedom: Changing the System by the System. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 1995.
Greenhaw, Wayne. Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.