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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013

Remarks by Ruth Vann Lillian, daughter of David Johnson Vann, on the occasion of his induction into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame - May 3, 2013 David Vann did what was right when right was required. They told him to stay away from the “outside agitators.” They told him to stop defending Civil Rights workers arrested on trumped-up charges. They called him a you-know-what-lover and accused him of betraying his own kind. But he did what was right when right was required. They told him he’d end his legal career when it had barely begun. They told him that he’d never get folk to talk to each other. They told him there was no way to stop Bull Connor. But he did what was right when right was required. They told him he’d never practice law again. They sent his clients to jail over & over. They threatened his life, but undaunted, he did what was right when right was required. David Vann was a man of impressive intellect, strong principles, and a stubborn disposition. Once he had evaluated the situation in Birmingham in the early 1960’s, and once he had decided what he believed to be the right course of action, there was absolutely nothing that would turn him aside. He would do what was right, because right was required. Was it the influence of his widowed mother raising her last son in the Methodist church at Auburn? Was it the role model of his older brother who landed at Omaha beach and lived to tell his little brother who was just a year too young to fight in WWII? Was it the life-changing moment when, serving as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s law clerk, he heard with his own ears the high court handing down the historic decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. the Board of Education? David Vann came to Birmingham with big ideas. He had plans to make his adopted home a great city, and this couldn’t happen with fire hoses and dogs turned on children and bombs going off in churches. It was a city alive with opportunity and potential if only everyone could operate on equal footing; if everyone could calm down and get back to the business of living lives; if every person was acknowledged and treated as a full citizen. Everyone respected, everyone empowered, everyone achieving, everyone equal. This was all crucial to Vann’s plans for a great city. And it was right. Right was required. So David Vann plotted and schemed with other right-doers, and they managed to get the Birmingham city government changed. A natural mediator, he was the man all sides would talk to, and he convinced everyone to try a “cooling off ” period. Jails emptied. Business resumed. And a new and renewed Birmingham was born. A few years later he would be elected to the city council he helped create, and in 1975, he became mayor of his beloved city. Then he really rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He used his knowledge of the law, his intellect, his passion, his hopes and dreams to improve his city. His ideas weren’t always popular, of course. He wasn’t perfect or a saint. There were times of discord, naturally, but many things went well for Vann and for his city. Then, as he looked toward re-election, a black woman was shot by a white policeman, and Vann was faced with the most difficult decision of his career. After reviewing all the evidence, and in spite of pressure from many Special Interest sides, he concluded that the officer had acted appropriately in the line of duty. They said he would lose re-election, and he did. They said it was the end of his political career, and it was. They said he had betrayed his principles, and that he was just another Southern white man corrupted by power and defending his own, but they were wrong. Despite every indication that this would be his political downfall, David Vann made the decision he believed to be right, because right is always required. David Vann returned to his legal practice, and spent the rest of his life serving the city of Birmingham in various capacities. You will find his influence in many places – City Hall, the museum, the theaters, the parks & roads, the city boundaries, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, even the water you drink. There are still people in this State who are not respected or empowered, who are not afforded the rights of full citizens. There is still a great need for intelligence and principle united with stubborn determination to find creative ways to change unjust laws so that, no matter their gender, race, national origin, disabling condition, creed, or sexual orientation, EVERYONE is really respected, empowered and equal. We are all called to follow the legacy of David Vann – to do what is right when right is required . . . remembering that RIGHT is ALWAYS required. G Birmingham Bar Bulletin/ Fall 2013 37


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013
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