By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
More than 800 elementary, middle and high school students from the Birmingham area on Friday witnessed the storied life of Civil Rights titan and retired U.S. District Judge Uriah W. Clemon, through the first reads of a new Red Mountain Theatre production, “The Calling: The Story of Judge U.W. Clemon.”
“The Calling,” written over the course of two years by Birmingham native Quinton Cockrell, examines Clemon’s life through a conversation between the retired judge and his daughter Michelle.
The cast included Kendall Johnson as Clemon; Lily Cameron as The Girl (Michelle), Howard Green as White Man and Shronda Major as the narrator.
“The Calling,” part of this year’s edition RMT’s annual Human Rights New Works Festival, takes viewers on a journey from Clemon’s early life in Fairfield, to his realization of his call to fight for Civil Rights through his efforts to desegregate schools and pass along wisdom to his daughter.
After the first of two reads of the “The Calling,” Clemon, who was in attendance, said he was “touched and humbled” by the play, which he said had been put together after Clemon said he told Cockrell “pretty much all there is to be told about my life” over the course of a year and a half.
“I hope that my life shows the importance of commitment to a cause and willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve that cause. Hopefully, it is a cause which leads you to service to others because from that service can come a gratification of one’s own life,” said the retired judge.
“There’s a reason why we’re here and that we have participated in more or less justifying our existence,” he added.
The play recounts in vivid detail an incident that happened when Clemon was 13 and led him to become a lawyer. While walking with his brother and a friend named Anthony in Westville, located just outside of Birmingham, a white police officer had Anthony get in the officer’s car.
After leaving Clemon and his brother for a long time, Anthony came back, having urinated on himself after the officer held a gun to his head.
In addition to witnessing the aftermath of the officer’s treatment of his friend, Clemon said he happened to know one of the few Black lawyers in Alabama at the time, Demetrius Newton, who was also from Fairfield and had read about Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“[Newton] was doing Civil Rights work on a limited basis, but knowing him at the time that this incident with the Fairfield police happened and having read about Thurgood Marshall and all that he had done—all of that directly impacted my decision to become a lawyer,” Clemon said.
Clemon, born in 1943 to former sharecroppers in Fairfield, graduated from Miles College and earned his law degree at Columbia University in New York City, before coming back to Birmingham where he worked as a Civil Rights lawyer and becoming one of the first 10 African-American lawyers admitted to the state bar.
Clemon was also elected to the Alabama Senate in 1974 and served as one of the two Black senators for the state since Reconstruction, before being appointed to his position as the U.S. District Judge of the Northern District of Alabama by then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and served in the role until 2009, when he retired from the bench and returned to private practice, where he continues to focus on civil rights issues like desegregation.
Cockrell said he grew up in Birmingham familiar with Clemon’s name and had even met the former judge in passing, but didn’t know much about Clemon’s accomplishments before working on the play.
“We got together in person about three times and then on the phone. I also spoke to Michelle on the phone, and I feel like I was emailing him every day for a while about something or other,” Cockrell said.
“The Calling” was initially conceived as a production that would be put on at area schools for students to learn about Clemon’s life, Cockrell said. The idea for a play was first pitched to RMT by Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter B. Gonsoulin Jr., Ph.D.
Cockrell said the retired judge’s story “has changed my life.” Clemon’s journey from growing up with former sharecropper parents to the figure he is today is inspiring, Cockrell said.
“We’re all born, and we all have potential, but he somehow, in difficult circumstances, maximized his potential. He overcame so much to become who he is, and the fact that he was able to do that is endlessly fascinating to me,” Cockrell said.
In addition, Cockrell said he admires Clemon’s lifelong determination to stand up for what is right.
“Having the courage to take a chance or to stand up to authority–there aren’t a whole lot of people who do that in our world, and he did it from a very young age, so I’ve been inspired to try to look for opportunities to stand up for what I believe in, as opposed to thinking that somebody else will handle it,” Cockrell said.
“He didn’t let anybody else handle it. He handled it himself,” Cockrell said.
Cockrell said he hopes audiences come away inspired the same way he was by “this person who had an extraordinary life. You can have one too.’ It’s all about the choices that you make. I hope that’s clear in the play, that you make a decision, and then you plan how you’re going to achieve those goals,” Cockrell said.
Witnessing the first reading before an audience was a very emotional experience for him, Cockrell said.
“I was moved, almost to the point of tears, several times because of the thrill of hearing the story out loud, and then just the idea of ‘I’m sitting two seats away from Judge Clemon, and he’s seeing the story of his life.’ It was overwhelming.”
RMT Executive Director Keith Cromwell, who collaborated with Cockrell to make “The Calling,” said they were pleased by student reactions.
“Hearing the kids ‘ooh, ahh’ and applaud at times that we didn’t even anticipate they would, it was thrilling to see that the kids could be that engaged with this piece, especially in just this reading form,” Cromwell said.
Cromwell said Clemon’s story “has got to be told,” and that RMT wants to take it statewide.
Red Mountain Theatre Presents the Fifth Annual Human Rights New Works Festival September 23-25, 2022. Five theatrical works that bring new voices, modern issues into the spotlight. All tickets $10 to performances and parking can be booked for free. Visit redmountaintheatre.org for tickets and more information.