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Richmond Flowers, 88; chief Alabama lawyer was a moderate on race

August 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

Former Alabama Atty. Gen. Richmond Flowers, a racial moderate who challenged segregationist Gov. George Wallace's dominance in the 1960s but whose political career ended in an extortion case, has died. He was 88.

Flowers died Thursday of Parkinson's disease at home in his native Dothan, Ala., his son, Richmond Flowers Jr., said Friday.

Flowers was elected attorney general in 1962, the year Wallace won his first term as governor. Flowers soon counseled against outright defiance of federal authority in contrast to Wallace's call for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Flowers was one of the first "New South politicians" who realized that the 1965 Voting Rights Acts would change the political landscape of the South by registering thousands of blacks to vote, said Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University history professor who has written extensively about Alabama history.

Flynt said some considered Flowers a political opportunist who sought to take advantage of changing times, while others looked at him as a courageous fighter who was willing to anger white voters during the tumultuous 1960s.

"There's probably a touch of both in him," Flynt said.

In 1965, Flowers prosecuted T.L. Coleman, a Lowndes County deputy sheriff, for the murder of white civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, who was attempting to register blacks to vote. A local jury determined that Coleman acted in self-defense and acquitted him.

Also that year, Flowers took over from local prosecutors in the slaying of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit who was killed by gunshots from a car of Ku Klux Klan nightriders as she drove protesters after the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. An all-white jury acquitted four Klansmen, but they were later tried in federal court and convicted of violating Liuzzo's civil rights.

Flowers ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 1966 when Wallace's wife, Lurleen Wallace, was her husband's stand-in because Alabama law at the time barred governors from running for a second term.

Among Flowers' campaign pledges were to improve the school system and to fly the American flag from the state Capitol dome, where only the state and Confederate flags flew at the time. He called that "a gesture of defiance that must be put behind us."

"He thought it was time to 'return to the union,' as he put it," Bob Ingram, a longtime political reporter and columnist in Montgomery, Ala., said Friday. "It didn't play well with Wallace, and they never made up."

Lurleen Wallace trounced the field and became governor, later dying in office. Meanwhile, her husband launched a campaign for the presidency.

In 1968, Flowers was accused with two others on federal charges of extorting payments from life insurance companies in return for their being allowed to do business in the state when Flowers was attorney general. All three were convicted in federal court in 1969.

Flowers was sentenced to eight years in prison and served from 1972 to '74, when he was paroled. President Carter pardoned him in 1978. Flowers always contended politics was behind the extortion investigation, but appeals courts ruled against him.

Born Nov. 11, 1918, Richmond McDavid Flowers attended Auburn University and the University of Alabama law school. A World War II veteran, he was elected to the state Senate in 1954 and became an ally of Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom, a moderate on race.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Mary Russell Flowers; two sons; a daughter; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His son, Richmond Jr., was a track and football star, and his grandson, Richmond III, also played pro football.

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