Has much changed since the dark days of the 1960s? Recent actions of the current governor, Republican Bob Riley, suggest they have not.
The current dispute centers on Riley's decision last week to pay up to $100,000 to hire one law firm in order to avoid paying another law firm $70,000. The firm that Riley hired--Wallace Jordan Ratliff & Brandt of Birmingham--is predominantly white. The firm that claims it is owed money from the state--Thomas Means Gillis & Seay of Montgomery--is predominantly black.
Here is how the Montgomery Advertiser describes the controversy:
The firm of Thomas, Means, Gillis & Seay has sought $70,000 for legal work it performed on behalf of the state's legislative contract review oversight committee when the committee attempted to block Gov. Bob Riley from signing a $13-million no-bid contract with Paragon, a company with no website, no listed phone number and documentation that listed its headquarters as personal residences.
A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge dismissed the committee's suit in December 2009, saying that the legislation that created the committee did not give it the power to sue.
Two months after that ruling, the state Department of Finance and state Comptroller Thomas White notified the clerk of the House of Representatives that it would not pay the firm because the committee and its chairman were not constitutionally empowered to file lawsuits.
During its regular session, the Alabama Legislature passed a resolution to pay Thomas Means Gillis & Seay. But Riley vetoed the measure, and that prompted the law firm to sue for the $70,000 it claims it is owed. That led Riley to approve a $100,000 contract for a law firm to fight the suit.
After Riley's veto in early May, State Rep. Alvin Holmes accused the governor of practicing racism. Similar charges came last week after an announcement about the $100,000 contract:
State Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said despite the outcome of the initial suit, the fact is Thomas, Means, Gillis & Seay did the work that they were hired to do.
"I have a problem with the administration taking this retaliatory action against a black law firm," Ross said. "I've not seen this administration do this against other firms."
This is not the first time questions have been raised about Riley's stance on matters of race. The Associated Press reported in 2006 that Riley was a member of a Masonic organization that critics say excludes blacks. Reported AP:
Riley, a Republican who is running for re-election against Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, is a member of a Masonic lodge in his east Alabama hometown of Ashland that is affiliated with the Grand Lodge of Alabama, a statewide group with no known blacks among more than 30,000 members.
It appears that Holmes and Ross have reasonable grounds to question Riley's motives in taking action against a black law firm.
It appears the people of Alabama have reasonable grounds to wonder if their state has been led by a racist for the past eight years.