The Road to Digression
is paved with asides
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
The current hubbub over Democratic "superdelegates" and their potential to disrupt the party's presidential nominating convention this summer by straying from popular sentiment prompted former Montgomery newsman Ray Jenkins to recall the "redoubtable" Walter B. Jones.
Walter Burgwyn Jones (1888-1963) was a former Alabama state legislator and Montgomery circuit judge who received in 1956 a vote for president in the electoral college. Somebody in the Alabama delegation clearly hopped the fence more than a half century ago.
It is hard to imagine that this year one of the state's Democratic superdelegates -- Chairman Joe Turnham, Auburn; Vice Chair Nancy Worley, New Hope; DNC Member Dr. Joe L. Reed, Montgomery; DNC Member Dr. Yvonne Kennedy, Mobile; DNC Member Rev. Randy Kelley, Gadsden; Congressman Bud Cramer, Huntsville; and Congressman Artur Davis, Birmingham.* -- could authenticate a more dubious prospect for president than Jones.
The political, judicial and personal philosophy Jones espoused, well, let Jenkins tell it, with an assist from Mobile attorney David A. Bagwell who authored a brief history of Jones' father, Thomas Goode Jones, for the Alabama Supreme Court's historical society, "which they told me could not exceed one page."
Bagwell: "... remember that Thomas Goode Jones is the DADDY of Walter B. Jones. The son, Walter B. Jones, was an unmarried circuit judge in Montgomery who was a virulent racist, and edited 'The Alabama Lawyer,' the 'official organ of the Alabama State Bar,' which during his tenure ran a lot of drivel about how the 14th amendment was never validly adopted, and all that. Much later I heard by the grapevine that Walter B. was a pederast who took young boys from bad neighborhoods up to his daddy's farm at Jonesboro and engaged with them in what Alabama law used to call 'the abominable and detestable crime against nature.' Ask Jenkins, who knows all about Montgomery and almost certainly all this ..."
Walter B. Jones was the circuit judge whose reversal created half of all of the Constitutional law in the Supreme Court in the 50's and 60's, such as New York Times vs Sullivan -- dear to you journalists -- and NAACP vs Alabama, the case saying the NAACP had a first amendment right NOT to give the state the names of its members."
Jenkins: "As a proud graduate of the Thomas Goode Jones Law Institute, I believe I remember libel law well enough to know you can't defame the dead. And in any event, I'm protected by Times v. Sullivan -- a case which I set into motion, entirely inadvertently. (It was the most significant story I ever wrote, and I knocked it out in 10 minutes, and it didn't even carry a byline.)
That said, I can shed a little light on the redoubtable Walter B. Jones.
I first got to know him in 1954 when he was assigned as the special judge in Phenix City after the Albert Patterson assassination, which as you may know I covered as a greenhorn reporter. He was a very large man, and he wore a robe at a time when almost no state judges in Alabama did so. And on his robe he wore his SAE fraternity pin -- having once served as national president of that formidable organization. He quite literally swished into the courtroom every morning at 8 and started holding trials in a fashion that would make Judge Roy Bean seem a civil libertarian. I'll never forget the time, around 9 p.m., after a grueling day of drumhead trials, he called a capital murder case against some minor functionary in the Phenix City racketeer machine. The poor man didn't have a lawyer, so Jones just appointed one he happened to see in the courtroom, and ordered the trial to proceed. The trial ended at 11:30 p.m., and the guy damn near got the chair, but a sole juror managed to hold the penalty to life. When it was all over, Jones had tried something like 800 indictments in just a few weeks.
After that I moved to Montgomery, where I continued to have occasional contact with WBJ. He wrote a column each Monday in The Advertiser entitled 'Off The Bench,' which should have been entitled 'Off The Wall,' since he used it to expound his racist legal theories. (If I'm not mistaken, the Judicial Code of Ethics, whatever that is, explicitly prohibits this.)
I soon began to hear whispered ribaldry about his pederasty. It seemed to be widely known that he was plucking boys out of the juvenile court and taking them to 'camping trips' at his woodsy retreat, which he called Jonesboro.
Everytime he came up for re-election, the lawyers of Montgomery took out a full page endorsing him. I think Cliff Durr may have been the only lawyer in town, except perhaps Fred Gray, who refused to sign, and he paid a price for it.
Once Jones invited me up for a drink at his house at the corner of Hull and Adams, which was the executive mansion during the governorship of Thomas Goode Jones. There were tales that old Jones went mad in his final years and was kept locked up but could be heard raging and ranting all over the neighborhood.
Now, in the younger Jones' tenure, the house was practically wall-papered by photographs of young boys -- kids he'd 'rescued' from the juvenile court system. I later discovered that his gavel contained an inset photograph of an angelic boy, upon which His Honor would gaze lasciviously during dull moments in court proceedings.
As you doubtless know, Jones was the trial judge in the libel suit brought by Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan against the New York Times, in 1962, I think it was.
Many years later, when I was in Baltimore, I got a visit from a legal scholar named Kermit Hall, who was writing a book on Times v. Sullivan. He shared with me information that he said he had documented: Not long before the libel trial, Jones had been arrested in the YMCA for molesting a boy. The policeman didn't seem to know what a big fish he had caught, and filed a routine report on the arrest. The next morning the police chief plucked the report out of the day's filings, before they were seen by the local police reporters, and took it to Commissioner Sullivan. Sullivan read the report and told the police chief, 'I'll handle this one.' He put the report in his drawer, and that was the last time the paper was ever seen.
Hall's book never appeared -- I think he died young. Of course Tony Lewis wrote a book about Times v. Sullivan, entitled 'Make No Law,' but he didn't have anything about the episode described above. Years later I asked him about it, and he was unaware of Hall's findings."
Bagwell: "I am/was an SAE -- alumnus of both the first (University of Alabama) and second (Vanderbilt) chapters of SAE, having been president of the Chapter at Vanderbilt -- and Jones has an interesting SAE history, having been National President, and was for years associated with one thing which I reckon all SAEs in the last 80 years or so have memorized, "The True Gentleman ..."
Odd he was a pederast. "The True Gentleman should really not be a pederast . . . ."
It will take somebody smarter than I to explain why so many right-wingers are pederasts. Smoke screen, I reckon.
I am a Republican, but like most Democrats, I prefer women, as best I recall."
*(On March 1 there will be one Unpledged Add-On Delegate elected by the State Democratic Executive Committee at its meeting in Montgomery along with 11 Pledged At-Large and 7 Pledged Party Leader/Elected Officials.)