Since retiring from the district court as chief judge, Clemon has been in private practice and served as a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Alabama Law School. He will receive the Pickering award at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco in August.
Clemon was educated in the segregated public schools of Jefferson County, Ala. His early involvement in the 1962 boycott of Birmingham’s segregated downtown stores and efforts to end racial discrimination at the Birmingham Public Library earned him the designation as one of Martin Luther King’s foot soldiers in the Birmingham civil rights movement. While a student at Miles College in 1962, he confronted Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor over the city’s segregation laws.
After graduating from New York’s Columbia Law School in 1968, Clemon returned to Birmingham and practiced civil rights law. He sued Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1969 to desegregate the University of Alabama’s football team and brought employment discrimination cases against large employers in the state.
Clemon became one of the first of two blacks to be elected to the Alabama State Senate since Reconstruction. In his two terms, he opposed Gov. George C. Wallace on various issues, including Wallace’s exclusion of black citizens from state boards and agencies, and the reinstatement of the death penalty.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Clemon as Alabama’s first black federal judge in 1980, and he served on the federal bench for nearly 30 years. During his time as chief judge, the court adopted a more representative jury plan, increased minority presence in the workforce of the court and transitioned to electronic case management. His ruling in favor of Lilly Ledbetter in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear employment discrimination case was reversed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The late John H. Pickering, co-founder of the Washington, D.C., law firm then known as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale), was known for his long record of pro bono work in the areas of civil rights, the financing of legal services for the poor, doctor-assisted suicide and on behalf of the elderly. The award in his name has been given since 2007.
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