Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

BISHOP: I found out about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's program as I was about to graduate, which was designed to just what I was trying to do so I got accepted to that, went to New York and, of course, ultimately came back to Columbus, Georgia, and set up my law practice. At that time, Albert Thompson was the only black lawyer in Columbus. He was a member of the legislature and most of his time — well, at least half of his time was spent in Atlanta, and Columbus was the second largest city in Georgia at that time and it was a wonderful opportunity so I went there. Two months after I got there the Legal Defense Fund sent me down to Reidsville —

BOND: The state prison.

BISHOP: The state prison, to follow up on some letters that they had received from black inmates who were claiming that they had been discriminated against and they had filed a pro se lawsuit against the state prison. I was to go down and talk with them and determine whether or not their case had merit. They had filed a pro se complaint. The Attorney General had filed a motion to dismiss their complaint. The motion was pending and it was about to be decided. They said, "We need some legal help," so I went down and interviewed about two dozen inmates, determined that if what they said was true, was factual, that they did have a case.

I recommended to the Legal Defense Fund — I gave that information to the Legal Defense Fund.They said that they would support the case if I would be the lead counsel. They would give me additional lawyers to work with me, they would advance expenses and if we won the case and got reimbursement of attorney's fees, then I would just repay that back and what else was awarded I would be able to keep, so I proceeded to do that and got involved in this massive prisoner rights litigation representing 6,000 black inmates out of 10,000 at the prison. There were 4,000 white inmates.

They were in architecturally equal living spaces, an east side and a west side of the prison, but the 6,000 blacks were on one side and the 4,000 whites were on the other side. They ate, slept, did everything according to where they lived, exercised, go to the doctor; there were no black guards, no black counselors. The only people black at that prison were the inmates.

Once we got into it there were about 20 different issues. Censoring of mail was a non-racial issue. Adequate medical care, adequate access to an attorney or to legal documents, those types of things were non-legal. If they wanted to write to a legislator, their mail could be censored by the guard who didn't want it to get out. If they were writing to their attorney, it could be censored and so those were issues, but we also had a lot of racial issues and segregation-type issues.

BOND: Did any of the white inmates become plaintiffs as well?

BISHOP: Well, what happened was after the judge, Judge [Anthony] Alaimo of the Southern District of Georgia certified the case as a class action on behalf of the black inmates, he then certified it as a class action on behalf of the white inmates and assigned me —

BOND: To represent them.

BISHOP: To represent them also on the non-racial issues and so one of my law professors, Professor Bob Stubbs, had become Executive Assistant Attorney General, had left the law school at Emory, gone to work for Arthur Bolton, and so I hand-delivered the amended complaint and the motions and the memoranda and the opposition to the motion to dismiss to him. He said, "What do you think we should do with this?" I said, "You ought to settle it. You're clearly wrong." He said, "We'll take that under advisement."

So we litigated for four years, had two status conferences, a minimum of two each year and in December of 1975 after having had eight of those meetings and having the judge tell the state and the Attorney General's office each time that you need to do this and they say, "Well, it cost 110 million dollars, we'd have to get the legislature to appropriate the money." He said, "Well, tell them to do it. Tell them I said do it." After eight times, they said the legislature had to appropriate the money. I got frustrated and I said, "I'm in the wrong place. I've won this case. These people are entitled to their rights, but they can't get them because the legislature's dragging its feet." So I decided to run for the legislature in a 65% white district.

I was fortunate enough to get elected. Stayed in the House for six years and finally the legislature appropriated the $110 million to fix the situation to depopulate or at least decentralize the prisoners, having smaller prisons, more modern and more habitable conditions, but the economy fell out and so as a consequence of that, the prisons were built but they couldn't be furnished nor staffed, which it took a few years for that and that happened the year that I ran for Congress and, of course, once I was elected to Congress, I was sent back to — I was invited back to cut the ribbon on these new prisons, and Allen Ault, who was the Commissioners of Corrections appointed by Zell Miller, had been the Commissioner of Corrections when the case was initially started, when I was litigating and so he introduced me to give my greetings. He says, "We invited him because he's a congressman and these institutions are in his district but we're really here because of what he did in his other life."

BOND: That must've been sweet satisfaction.

BISHOP: It was. It was. It was. It made it seem all worthwhile, because I realized that I could win a case for my clients and it would affect them, but I could pass one good law and it could affect everybody in the state.