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This story’s about a man who likely disarmed people with his not-so-slick, portly appearance.
He was a lawyer and brilliant strategist who quietly used the law and his mind as weapons.
He expertly and single-mindedly changed the city of Birmingham, the state of Alabama—and the nation.
David Johnson Vann was a hero, but without question an unusual one. He was a white man born in Roanoke, Alabama in 1928 who became a Birmingham hero.
Vann lacked the grace and polish of Martin Luther King, Jr. He isn’t known for fiery, eloquent speeches or for having written great essays. He was a devout Methodist, but didn’t wield his religion like Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham’s black warrior-minister.
After graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Alabama. Vann took time off as a student in 1946-47 to serve as a criminal investigator in the Army. He eventually graduated from Alabama (1950), from the University’s law school in 1951, and earned a Master of Laws degree from George Washington University in 1953.
Vann spent two years in Army counter-intelligence before beginning his law career in the office of general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board in 1953. He was clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1954 when the court handed down its landmark decision on school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (the beginning of the end of “separate but equal” in the U.S.).
In 1956 Vann moved to Birmingham to join White, Bradley, Arant, Rose and All—the oldest and one of the most prestigious law firms in the city. He became active in the Young Men’s Business Club and the Alabama Council on Human Relations, one of the most progressive race relations organizations in Alabama. Vann had quickly established himself as a liberal leader in Birmingham.
In her epic history of the Civil Rights Movement, Carry Me Home (2001), Diane McWhorter characterized the Young Men’s Business club as a “haven for young lawyers and businessmen who hoped to ‘carry out a progressive takeover of the city through economic diversification…’” By 1962, Vann was its president—and an unofficial member of the Young Turks (the term McWhorter used to describe the most radical members of the group).
In 1962 and 1963, Vann was a central figure in three epic developments:
- He served as a local “diplomat” by managing complex, intense negotiations that included local white power brokers, black civil rights activists, and representatives of the federal government. Here’s an example: When the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a boycott of downtown stores in 1962, downtown merchants hired Vann to represent them in negotiations with the civil rights activists and the federal government. Vann became—in the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall, “the only white man in Birmingham willing to talk with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
- At the national level, Vann served the lead attorney in Baker v. Carr, (1962), a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Court held that federal courts could hear redistricting cases. This battle would lead to the reapportionments of state legislatures all over the country. And Vann immediately turned this into a local weapon by fighting to get proportional representation in the Alabama legislature for Jefferson County.
- Vann spearheaded the successful process that changed Birmingham’s form of government from a commission to a mayor-council one (and got Bull Connor out of office).
According to Glenn Eskew (But for Birmingham, 1997), “…Vann joined other white racial liberals in efforts to reapportion the state legislature and change the form of city government so racist politicians could be removed from office.”
The 1961 Freedom Riders incidents in downtown Birmingham had been an international public relations disaster for the city. Jim Crow laws, an all-white police force, and Bull Connor’s unchecked power were all on full display. And, as Klansmen attacked the Freedom Riders at the Trailways bus station, Birmingham Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston took a picture that appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the world.
Birmingham power broker (and segregationist) Sidney Smyer was attending the International Rotary Convention in Tokyo when the Freedom Rider incident occurred. Seeing the headline and accompanying picture had to have been incredibly embarrassing. Smyer was an attorney, President of old-money Birmingham Realty, and the incoming president of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce.
According to Vann, everything changed for Smyer (a long-time segregationist) that day. Vann: “And that picture as much as anything else, I believe, convinced him that something had to be changed.”
Vann continued: When Sidney Smyer returned from Tokyo, he formed a committee made up of senior partners in local law firms, the presidents of all the major manufacturing operations, the presiding judge of the state courts, and other community leaders. There were about 400 in all, and they set about looking at the racial situation in Birmingham. They formed one committee that started meeting and talking with black leadership, they formed another committee to look at organization of government and political structures and political things that might be important. And they decided to ask the Birmingham Bar Association to make a study of what kind of government would be best for Birmingham. In March of 1962, that committee recommended a change of the formal city government.
The Birmingham Bar Association appointed well-known civil rights attorney Abe Berkowitz to chair that committee (other leaders were attorneys Vann; J. Vernon Patrick, Jr.; and Erskine Smith). They of course recommended the mayor-council model; everyone knew, however, that the real reason was to get Connor out of office. For generations Birmingham had been managed by a commission, with Bull Connor serving unchecked as the Commissioner of Public Safety for parts of four decades (1936-1954 and 1957-1963). Birmingham’s citizens however, would have to approve the change through a special referendum. Young David Vann, while simultaneously working on several important projects, was now thrust into a leadership role that would change Birmingham forever.
In order to understand how Vann engineered the much-needed change in Birmingham’s form of government, we must recognize how the 1962 Baker v. Carr decision fits in at the local and state levels. Because reapportionment had not been applied in Alabama since 1901, urban counties like Jefferson were grossly underrepresented. Through federal lawsuits based on Baker v. Carr, Vann and other attorneys forced Alabama to reapportion its state legislative districts and thereby increase Jefferson County’s number of representatives from seven to seventeen.
A special election was called to vote on those ten new legislative openings. Vann, however, understood that the special election also provided a unique pathway to change the form of government in Birmingham. Vann’s group needed at least 7,000 signatures on a petition to call for a citywide referendum on the new form of government. Vann created a scheme to acquire the necessary number of signatures. And they had little time to prepare; the special legislative election was only ten days away.
Utilizing Vann’s plan, the committee secured volunteers to man petition-signing booths near each city polling place. The tactic was a huge success: 1) They secured 11,000 signatures to force the referendum, and 2) They worked so quickly that Bull Connor was unable to mount any resistance. (Historian Glenn Eskew says that committee-member Erskine Smith guarded the petitions with a shotgun that night.)
The referendum was set, and in November 1962, the mayor-council form proposal won by a slim margin. In the subsequent special election (March 1963), the mayoral votes were split among four candidates, with former Lieutenant Governor Albert Boutwell receiving 37% and Connor 31%. In April, Boutwell defeated Connor in a runoff, 58% to 42%. And David Vann had again helped to change the world…
The city would now operate under a government with proper checks and balances. Connor, however, did not go quietly. He and the other commissioners filed a lawsuit to block the election results, but in late May the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against them. That short, unfortunate delay, however, empowered Conner to leave a horrible stain on the city. Fire hoses, billy clubs, armored personnel carriers, and police dogs created scars that will never heal.
Vann: So, in a single day we instituted a new government, the old government refused to leave and Dr. King and the SCLC began the Birmingham Marches. Uh, and the marches occurred almost entirely during the 37 day period when Birmingham had two governments… Well, I remember now the day we swore in the mayor, new mayor and council, and the headline said, “A New Day for Birmingham,” and before the day was over, we discovered we had two mayors, two city governments, and Dr. Martin Luther King and the SCLC starting marches up and down the street.
Concurrently, Vann was a plaintiff and the attorney of record for the lawsuit that would lead to another landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reynolds v. Sims (basically an extension of the previously cited Baker v. Carr, 1962). From Oyez.org:
In 1961, M.O. Sims, David J. Vann (of Vann v. Baggett), John McConnell (McConnell v. Baggett), and other voters from Jefferson County, Alabama, challenged the apportionment of the state legislature. Lines dividing electoral districts had resulted in dramatic population discrepancies among the districts. The state constitution required at least one representative per county and senatorial district. However, the district in Jefferson County, which is near Birmingham, contained 41 times as many eligible voters as those in another district of the state. Sims and the other voters argued that this lack of proportionality prevented them from effectively participating in a republican form of government.
In an 8-to-1 decision authored by Justice Earl Warren, the Court upheld the challenge to the Alabama system, holding that Equal Protection Clause demanded “no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens…” Noting that the right to direct representation was “a bedrock of our political system,” the Court held that both houses of bicameral state legislatures had to be apportioned on a population basis. States were required…to construct districts as nearly of equal population as practicable.
The 1964 decision made “one man–one vote” the law of the land in 1964. Reynolds v. Sims had nationwide impact: It affected every state that did not apportion its legislative districts based on population.
Vann’s liberal activist reputation, however, made him unpopular with Birmingham’s conservative whites. He certainly never lacked the courage to act—even when it cost him dearly. And it did cost him dearly. Here’s McWhorter’s account (from Carry Me Home, 2001): “Vann had suffered plenty since assuming the task of ending Our Way of Life…his partners at Bradley, Arant felt that he wasn’t pulling his weight at the firm (and, of course, that he was so deeply involved in liberal causes). Vann agreed to leave the firm. McWhorter: “Douglas Arant, the closet liberal partner, had managed to secure a few months’ salary for him while the firm officially loaned him out to the new administration, at long last moving into Birmingham City Hall.” Vann and another liberal attorney, J. Vernon Patrick, formed their own firm in 1963.
Local writer Mark Kelly, former publisher of Weld, believes that Vann is one of the five most important people in the city’s history. Kelly reminds us of Vann’s fearlessness: “In 1970-71, Vann was the driving force behind the most ambitious attempt ever to eradicate political boundaries in Jefferson County. Working with business leaders like retailer Richard Pizitz, banking executive Norman Pless, accountant Donald Brabston and lawyer Jim White, Vann pushed a plan that would have expanded the boundaries of the city of Birmingham to encompass almost all of Jefferson County, including ‘all of its surrounding suburban cities.’” This was an incredibly ambitious effort, and would be the last attempt to end the “balkanization” of the Birmingham metro area.
In 1971 Vann was elected to the City Council along with Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham’s first black member. It is fascinating and ironic that Vann and Arrington became best friends and political allies.
In February 1974, Councilor Vann introduced an ordinance to create a Citizens Advisory Board in which the city would be divided into twelve Citizens Participation Program (CPP) communities. Mayor George Seibels was against it, however—and it failed by a 5-3 vote. However, Vann’s best friend on the council, Arrington, immediately began a crusade to empower local leaders (particularly in the black communities) to support the idea.
By November Arrington had created a wave of support—and 500 citizens attended a meeting to call for Vann’s proposal to be adopted. According to Arrington, this time the Council unanimously adopted it—and November 19 was set as the date of the first CPP election. The new organization gained nationwide recognition and became a model for other cities. The CPP: 1) Empowered grassroots neighborhood organizations, 2) Became a watchdog over city government, and 3) Provided a pathway for neighborhood leaders to eventually become city leaders. [from Arrington’s memoir, There’s Hope for the World (2008)]
In 1975, with Arrington’s important endorsement, Vann was elected mayor. A coalition of white liberals and an increasingly influential bloc of black voters had put Vann into office. Vann continued his liberal crusade as mayor of Birmingham. Before 1975, no African-American had ever held an important staff position. Under Vann, however, they held four of nine of the city’s most desirable jobs. Vann also pushed through (the city council) an ordinance that allowed him to set aside ten percent of the City’s construction budget for minority contractors. After a legal battle, the program was finally implemented by the next mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr. (Nordin, From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama, 2012).
Michael Calvert, former long-time president of Operation New Birmingham, described Vann’s aggressively progressive approach in a very conservative city: “After Vann’s election as mayor in 1975 with support from the growing number of African-American voters, he quickly established an activist role for city government. A new Department of Economic Development was created, a city center master plan was commissioned, and citizens participated in decisions on zoning changes, liquor licenses, recreation centers, and other issues previously decided primarily at City Hall.”
Fate, however, turned against Vann near the end of his term. A 20-year-old black woman, Bonita Carter, was shot and killed by Birmingham police officer George Sands on June 22, 1979. According to witnesses, Carter was acquainted with a man who had been arguing with a store clerk, and she had agreed to move his car. While Carter was behind the wheel, Sands shot her several times at close range.
A citizen review board eventually ruled that Sands’ actions were justified, and Vann supported its decision. A city that had been relatively quiet for about fifteen years exploded. As we’ve seen play out across the U.S. in recent years, angry blacks conducted mass demonstrations to express their frustration with the systemic brutality aimed at them.
Vann was in a no-win situation—and his solid coalition made up of liberal whites and the black community collapsed. Ironically, this seminal event helped propel Vann’s friend, Richard Arrington, Jr. into a successful campaign to become Birmingham’s first African American mayor. Arrington served in that role for an entire generation, from 1979-1999.
In a 2009 piece, Birmingham News columnist John Archibald ranked David Vann as Birmingham’s top mayor since 1963:
It would be easy to think Vann the Jimmy Carter of mayors, the man who achieved more after his term than in it. But Vann shaped Birmingham before, during, and after his term. He helped change Birmingham’s form of government in the first place, in effect ousting Connor and his gang. He tried, and barely failed, to consolidate metropolitan government in the early ’70s, and he masterminded the city’s annexation push of the ’80s. He was not flashy, he was not a good dresser, and he didn’t seem all that energetic. Still, he is the model for what Birmingham needed, and still needs, as mayor.
As was his nature, Vann was handed lemons and subsequently made a bunch of lemonade. As mayor, he had developed an expansion plan for Birmingham. Recognizing that “White Flight” was causing a declining population and, along with it, a smaller tax base, Vann envisioned an annexation strategy to acquire property for future economic development. And Arrington, ever loyal to Vann, brought him into his administration.
During Arrington’s second term—and with Vann serving as special counsel—the mayor aggressively pursued Vann’s annexation strategy. Through Vann’s creative genius and exceptional legal skills, Birmingham annexed thousands of acres of largely undeveloped land that now includes the Birmingham Race Course, Barber Motor Sports (along with other new developments in that area), the Summit, Brook Highlands, HealthSouth, the Colonnade, Birmingport, and much of Oxmoor Valley.
The Vann-Arrington partnership’s legacy: A much stronger tax base for Birmingham and, therefore, a significantly more diverse and larger economy. The upscale Summit, for example, pulls in about $14 million per year in sales tax revenue for Birmingham.
According to Odessa Woolfolk, founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, it was Vann who conceived of a “museum-like facility to memorialize its civil rights history… (1978, while Vann was mayor).” Woolfolk continued: “…on a trip to Israel, he was impressed by the museums of the Holocaust and Jewish Diaspora. His visit convinced him that respectful remembrance of horror could be therapeutic for a community. Perhaps, he reasoned, Birmingham could heal itself through recalling its civil rights struggle and celebrating the changes it produced.” Vann’s vision finally came to fruition in 1992—and he was a founding board member.
Vann, ever the public servant, also served two terms as chair of the Birmingham Water Works Board before resigning in 1991.
David Johnson Vann died in 2000 at the age of 71. By his mid-thirties, he’d been a catalyst for massive change at the state, local, and national levels. He had injected his vision of a changed Birmingham into a complex, dangerous time. Vann served as the most important diplomat during Birmingham’s tumultuous, dangerous, and delicate years of 1961-1964. His position was unique: He was trusted by black leaders, by whites like Smyer who had decided that changes had to be made, and by key negotiators in Washington, D.C.
It’s hard to imagine, however, the personal and professional costs sustained by such a liberal white lawyer in the Birmingham of the Sixties. How could such a man find enough clients to sustain a law practice? (The other well-known young lawyer who’d openly challenged the status quo, Charles Morgan, moved to Washington, D.C.) Vann, as always, managed to land on his feet. Even though he’d lost the mayor’s race to Arrington, their relationship stayed strong and—through that bond and the annexation program—they built an economically viable Birmingham.
Our community, our state, and the nation owe Vann a great deal, but he seems to be lost in history. We continue to practically ignore his role as a change agent during the most important era in Birmingham’s history. There are no biographies of the man. And little has been written about the unique friendship and partnership between Vann and Arrington.
Someone needs to write a book about David Vann.
Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher. He’s currently president of the Birmingham Basketball Academy, which he founded in 2013.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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