When longtime civil rights and NAACP lawyer Al McSurely argued to Wilson District Attorney Howard Boney that James Johnson shouldn’t spend another day in jail, he wasn’t in front of a judge or jury. He was in Boney’s office with a few black preachers and activists, applying the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure that’s rooted as much in the Civil Rights movement as any jurisprudence.
Johnson, who is black, had spent more than three years in jail awaiting trial on $1 million bond for kidnapping, raping and killing a white high school student, Brittany Willis. Johnson says the young woman’s killer, Kenneth Meeks, approached him after the crime to help with the cleanup, and he did so because he was scared. Meeks, already a convicted killer, pointed the finger at Johnson, a college-bound soccer star. The cops charged Johnson with the crime, despite the lack of corroborating evidence. Even when Meeks recanted his accusation, William Wolfe, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, held fast, and Johnson remained in jail for more than three years without a trial.
Enter the folks from the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, led by McSurely and the organization’s president, the Rev. William Barber, who poked holes in the state’s case and arguing that Johnson remained in jail only because he is black.
“We were convinced it was a terrible miscarriage of justice,” McSurely says.
McSurely and Barber pressed locals in Wilson County to organize a local NAACP branch. “That provides a counterbalance to the racist reaction in the county the DA is responding to,” McSurely says. “Until we get an organized counterweightblack and white people who are against racism, black and white people who say wait a damn minutewe’re going to be on the defensive.”
With that support, McSurely mounted his legal offensive, targeting Boney, while Barber lobbied at the governor’s office. Hours after McSurely’s Sept. 21 meeting, when one preacher threatened to stage mass demonstrations on par with the rallies in Jena, La., prosecutors offered Johnson a deal: time served plus five months in exchange for a guilty plea. Johnson refused, but stayed in jail only through the weekend, because the judge in the case reduced his bond to $60,000. After 39 months in pre-trial detention, Johnson went home to sleep in his own bed.
“We had attorneys, but let’s face it, they were court-appointed,” says Arthur Johnson, James Johnson’s father. “So they do the job they’re paid for, but they are not as proactive. Instead of just sitting back with a wait-and-see attitude, Al’s vantage point was, This kid didn’t do itwe need to let everyone know exactly what happened.”
As Legal Redress Chair of the N.C. NAACP, a volunteer position he took on in 2005 after retiring from his Chapel Hill-based civil rights law practice, McSurely crisscrosses the state working on cases like Johnson’s. He organized locals in Vance County when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced with a racist telephone hotline. He supported the release of Floyd Brown, a mentally retarded man who was held 14 years without a trial on murder charges because he was incompetent to stand trial. When black voters in Reidsville complained of discrimination at the polls during the October primary, McSurely fired off a letter that blurs the line between legal argument and righteous preaching.
“He has tried to use law as a way at getting at fighting racism and white supremacynot as a lawyer riding in on a white horse with a briefcase, but a lawyer connected with the movement,” says Lewis Pitts, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina.
McSurely saw his first glimpse of his life’s work in 1957, the summer before his senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill. He hitchhiked from his home in northern Virginia to Texas, stopping at towns and cities along the way, including Little Rock, Ark., where he saw “this whole segregated system in a fairly large capital town.”
He hasn’t been the same since.
After graduation, he worked as a juvenile court counselor in Virginia and then at a Washington, D.C.-area anti-poverty program. He joined the Northern Virginia Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, in 1962. “What really made me committed for life was getting to know as very close friends some poor, African-American people that were trying to make sense out of this situation that they had been born into,” McSurely says. “If white people ever allow themselves to become real good friends with poor black people and identify with them as brothers and sisters, then it’s hard not to become a member of the antiracist movement.”
In 1967, McSurely moved with his then-wife and a handful of white organizers to eastern Kentucky to bring white working people into the movement. A few months after they arrived, the county sheriff arrested both of them and ransacked their home. The county prosecutor charged them with sedition, a federal crime that carries a 20-year prison sentence.
The Center for Constitutional Rights took the case, arguing in federal court the prosecution would have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights. McSurely and his wife won, but later that year, Democratic Sen. John McClellan subpoenaed them to turn over the addresses and information of their friends in the movement. They refused and sued the senator and other committee members. They won in 1983 when a Washington, D.C., jury awarded them a $1.6 million judgment.
McSurely used his portion of the money to pay his way through law school at N.C. Central University and support his family until he launched his civil rights law practice. He took his first case when he was 51.
From his first days as a lawyer, he worked closely with the Chapel Hill branch of the NAACP, which he helped found in 1986, often bringing discrimination cases against UNC-Chapel Hill and the town of Chapel Hill. He has long been a white man among blacks, and that’s how he likes it: He often uses the word “we” when talking about African Americans.
“Since I joined the movement, I’ve always felt much more comfortable in a black setting than in a white setting,” he says. “I feel very uncomfortable when I’m in a room with all white people.”
During his 20 years as a lawyer, he says he can remember representing only four white men and a few white women, the latter in sexual discrimination cases.
“He has been the one to take the cases that nobody else has wanted to take,” says Pitts. “He can win them and he likes to get the issues publicized. He has always centered around fighting racism and white supremacy.
“Some lawyers have a general practicethe paying clientsand then they hopefully may take the civil rights cases that tend to be hard and long and costly on the side. Al hasn’t taken the paying clients. He has stayed consistently with the poor and oppressed. He has sacrificed a comfortable lawyer income.”
McSurely took his talents from Chapel Hill to the state level when Barber was elected president of the N.C. NAACP in 2005. “What Al brings to the table is a historical perspective with an almost youthful idealism,” Barber says. “He has not lost his idealism and yet he has the historical perspective of having lived through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That means he is able to give very wise counsel.”
“It’s rewarding to see a white guy be as honest as he is and to understand what is taking place here,” says Frank Jones, who is black and fought for James Johnson’s release. “It’s sad to say we don’t have enough Al McSurelys to speak out when they see an injustice.”