The front door of Mary's House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Birmingham, Alabama, founded by Shelley and Jim Douglass.
The front door of Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Birmingham, Alabama, founded by Shelley and Jim Douglass.


Interview by Terry Messman

Street Spirit: You described how you first became inspired by the Catholic Worker while in college. How did you begin Mary’s House in Birmingham?
Shelley Douglass: When we moved here to Birmingham, we were sort of delegated by Ground Zero to watch trains, but after we had been here for two years we realized there were no more trains to watch. So we had to make the choice: Do we go back to Ground Zero, or do we stay here, and if we stay here, what are we here for?
So that just kind of fit in with my always having wanted to do a Catholic Worker. So we decided that we would do a Catholic Worker, even though we had no money. I mean, you never have any money when you start a Catholic Worker.
Spirit: Dorothy Day described one of the primary missions of the Catholic Worker as providing houses of hospitality. Does Mary’s House offer hospitality?
Douglass: Well, physically, Mary’s House is a big old house, kind of like many Catholic Worker houses. It was built in 1920 in the Ensley area of Birmingham, which used to be a big steel and brickmaking area. It’s got four bedrooms, one of which I sleep in, and three of them we use as hospitality, primarily for families or single women. People come and stay while they get on their feet. It’s kind of like a big family house.
Spirit: Do you seek out other services in the community and connect your residents with these sources of help?
Douglass: Yes, we’ve been open for quite a long time now so we have some good ties with various services. There’s a Methodist group that has a place called Urban Ministries and their social workers work with us a lot. The people who are staying with us can go to them to get connected with various kinds of services, help paying bills and food and places to live.
There aren’t enough places to live, so it’s difficult and time-consuming to find a place that you can afford to live. But we do have a lot of community support. Financially we are totally dependent on the community. Everything is done by donations and by volunteers. Nobody gets paid.
Spirit: Do any of the churches in Birmingham get involved or provide help?
Douglass: A couple of parishes give us regular money and a lot of people from churches give us money. Also, we have work parties. And there’s a Catholic thing called JustFaith Ministries. It’s a nationwide series of courses that parishes do on social justice teachings of the church and they always get radicalized when they do it. It’s wonderful. We have a lot of ties with people who have gone through that program. And we have a lot of Methodist ties, Methodist coworkers and friends. It’s a community endeavor, even though we’re the people who are physically here all the time.

Opposing the Death Penalty

Spirit: After you moved to Alabama, you became involved in opposing the death penalty and also began visiting a prisoner on death row. Why are you opposed to the death penalty?
Douglass: We’ve always been against the death penalty, theoretically. It goes with the territory: We don’t believe in killing people. We started out being opposed to the death penalty on a kind of theoretical level because we’re committed to nonviolence. And clearly, the death penalty is a rather final use of violence on the part of the state. Then, from a religious perspective, we believe that Jesus meant what he said, which is that you love your enemy and you forgive, and you don’t take vengeance. So those two things meant that we were against the death penalty.
Spirit: Wasn’t Jesus himself a victim of the death penalty?
Douglass: Well, he definitely was. He was a political prisoner who was executed to discourage any kind of rebellion against the Romans.
Spirit: You’d think the fact that the central figure in Christianity was executed might give our government the idea that the death penalty is the wrong way to go.
Douglass: I think the state might still think it’s the way to go, but it might give us Christians the idea that it’s not the way to go. If Jesus were executed today, he might be put in the electric chair or it might be lethal injection. Then, instead of wearing crosses around our necks, we’d be wearing syringes or electric chairs.
Spirit: Yes, people forget that the cross was the state’s instrument of execution.
Douglass: Right — for political subversives especially.
Spirit: When did the death penalty become something more personal to you than just one more political issue?
Douglass: It wasn’t until we got to know Leroy White personally, as a human being, that we were kind of moved in our gut to take more action against it. It’s a whole different thing when it’s an issue and when it’s a person, you know?
Spirit: So with Leroy White, it became a person you knew and cared about?
Douglass: Right, and who had a big family outside of prison who were tremendously affected by what happened to him.
What actually led up to our working personally against the death penalty here in Alabama was that we got a letter from Hattie Nestle, an activist friend of ours in Massachusetts, saying that she was corresponding with a prisoner down here on death row. She said he hadn’t had visitors in five or 10 years and could we go and visit him. She didn’t realize how big Alabama is. It’s four or five hours travel to the death row prison, so it wasn’t like we were just going to hop on down there. But I started to write to Leroy White, who was her friend, and after a year or two of writing to him, I decided that I would visit.

Warden Grantt Culliver, right, and then-Alabama Prison Commissioner Mike Haley during a media tour of the death chamber at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore. Photo credit: The Birmingham News/ Mark Almond
Warden Grantt Culliver, right, and then-Alabama Prison Commissioner Mike Haley during a media tour of the death chamber at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore. Photo credit: The Birmingham News/ Mark Almond


The Life and Death of Leroy White

Spirit: Where was Leroy White imprisoned? What prison and in what city?
Douglass: He was in Atmore Prison, which is where most of our death row prisoners are and it’s just slightly north of Mobile, Alabama. [Holman Correctional Facility is located near the town of Atmore in southern Alabama.] It would take four hours to drive down and we would visit for a couple hours, then I’d turn around and drive back. After I’d done that for a couple years, Jim started coming too, so for a long time the two of us went.
Spirit: Why did it become so important that you kept visiting him for several years? His case was nearly hopeless and the death penalty was not likely to be reversed. Some might have found it hard to keep visiting under those conditions.
Douglass: It was important because here was this person who was totally isolated, waiting for them to kill him, sitting in a brutal prison. Nobody was in touch with him. Nobody seemed to care. Once you meet somebody like that, it becomes personal and you want to continue to support him. And we built a relationship.
It wasn’t a really easy relationship to build because, to start with, we didn’t have a lot in common. It was good when Jim went because they could talk sports, but I don’t know anything about sports so I didn’t have that to fall back on. We would talk about our kids and that sort of thing.
But it was a difficult thing, especially early on, because Leroy told us what he was in for. He had killed his wife and, being who I am, that’s the person I’m least likely to relate to. This is where you get challenged in your nonviolence and all that, because that’s the person I’m least likely to want to be friends with.
Spirit: He killed his wife with a shotgun and also shot her sister, didn’t he?
Douglass: Shot her sister, but didn’t kill her. He was berserk on drugs and alcohol and his little daughter was there when he did it and his stepson was in the house, nearby. So you know, it was about as horrible as you can imagine.
Spirit: So why did you continue to care about him? Why did you drive all those miles to visit for all those years?
Douglass: Well, we knew that that wasn’t all there was to Leroy.

Compassionate Caregiver

Spirit: What else was there to understand about Leroy?
Douglass: Like all of us, Leroy was a complex person. He’d had a rural Alabama childhood, a southern childhood. Depending on your cultural background, I guess you could say he was abused as a child. He came from a very big family, then had gone into the military. He had actually lived in Seattle not far from where we had lived, and he had some mental problems that I think led him to be violent. He was dismissed from the military because he attacked his commanding officer and they discharged him dishonorably instead of trying to get him any help.
Then he went to college and met Ruby and married her, and all of that time he was doing drugs pretty heavily. I think when we first met him in prison, he was still using drugs in the prison, which of course is not that hard to do. But over those years that we were visiting, he began to come to terms with what he had done, and to try and build a relationship with La Tonya, his daughter.
He became a part of a community of men inside the prison who are part of a group called Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. It’s an inside group working against the death penalty. So he deepened a lot in his self-knowledge, I think. He understood more about himself.
You know, you age and die on death row if they don’t electrocute you or murder you in some other way. One of the men there had a stroke and was incontinent and had to be taken care of, and, of course, there’s no nursing service or anything. So Leroy was one of the major caregivers for this man. Yeah, Leroy was never an angel, but he became a very compassionate person.
Spirit: Still, it must have been hard for you, both as a feminist and as someone committed to nonviolence, to comprehend his murder of an unarmed woman. How were you able to continue visiting and supporting him?
Douglass: I knew him as a person before he told us why he was on death row, and it was like facing the humanity of the enemy, because in my theoretical construct, the person who shoots his wife would be the enemy. But I already knew him as a person, so I had to put together this Leroy person that I knew face to face, with the enemy who had come with a shotgun and killed his wife.
So it was a challenge for my nonviolence. At that point, we had a relationship and I wasn’t going to end the relationship because of something he had done 10 or 15 years before, but it was an uncomfortable kind of thing. You just have to live through it. Obviously, I never condoned what he did. Eventually, he got to the point where he would talk with us about his remorse.
He changed over the time that we visited him. I’m not saying this is because we visited him, but over time, he became a much more serious person and faced up to what he had done. He talked about how he was sorry that he had done that, and he certainly understood that this was a wrong thing to have done and that it hurt his family in a lot of ways and that he was responsible. That gave me more peace about being in support of him and visiting him.

Surprising Requests for Mercy

Spirit: Many people that you might expect to be completely hostile to Leroy actually asked for clemency for him — even some of the family members on his wife’s side.
Douglass: Yeah, all of the family, as a matter of fact, and the woman that he shot. We began visiting Leroy when only one of his sisters would visit him. He’s one of nine kids, and he was one of the younger ones. He was on death row for over 20 years, so over time the hostility and recriminations began to break down.
The sister who was consistently in touch was raising his two-year-old daughter, La Tonya. La Tonya was his daughter with the wife that he killed, Ruby. As La Tonya grew up, at first she would write letters to Leroy and visit with her aunt; but as she grew older, she cut Leroy off because she was rightfully angry at what he had done. It was after several years that she eventually came to terms with it and accepted him back into her life again.
Spirit: That must have been a huge step for her.
Douglass: Oh yeah, and she’s young. I think she was 24 when he was killed four years ago. So having made that move, they became very close. She visited and they wrote back and forth and they phoned as much as they could. By the time the state was ready to execute Leroy, his family had become very close to each other and La Tonya remained close with the other side — to Ruby’s family.
When the state suddenly announced that he was being executed, there were about three or four months where the lawyers were trying to do something and the family was trying to get a clemency hearing. Leroy’s brothers and sisters didn’t want him killed, and La Tonya clearly didn’t want him killed.
She wrote to the governor and said, “If you kill my father, then I’m an orphan and I have no parents left.” She asked for him to have life without parole instead. But the interesting thing was that the other side — Ruby’s family, including Ruby’s sister, who was one of the people Leroy shot — were also opposed to his execution.
Spirit: It seems almost unbelievable. Why did his wife’s side of the family end wanting his life to be spared?
Douglass: They were opposed because of La Tonya, and because they had stayed close to her. That was her mother’s family, and they knew how much she had come to care about Leroy. They knew that she saw him clearly as her only remaining parent and she didn’t want him killed. So although they were still very angry with Leroy for what he did, they didn’t want him killed for the sake of La Tonya.
Spirit: So La Tonya only had two or three years with him after accepting him as her father again before the state took his life?
Douglass: Yes. She was 24 when they killed him after she had become close to him. For a long time, they were estranged. When we first visited Leroy, he would say things like, “I wrote La Tonya all this fatherly advice and she won’t answer my letters.” And I’m thinking, “Well Leroy, is that really a surprise?”
But over the years they had worked through this, and she had forgiven him and become close to him. She saw him as her father and she’d read his letters of advice. She appealed to the governor for clemency because she said, “If you kill my father, both of my parents will be gone.”
Spirit: It’s kind of beautiful that she had a spirit so large that she could actually accept him as her father.
Douglass: And Ruby’s side of the family asked that he not be executed because of what it would do to her. So the entire family on both sides was united on that.
About a year after they killed Leroy, I went on a speaking tour with Bill Pelke, the relative of a murder victim who travels to speak against the death penalty. We were at a little town near Selma. Leroy was from that area and I always talked about his case as the epitome of all the bad things that can happen with the death penalty in Alabama because he was guilty of the crime he was accused of, but in every other way, it was a miscarriage of justice. I was telling his story and afterward, two women stood up in the audience and said, “We are Ruby’s sisters and we know all about this case.”
Spirit: The sisters of his wife were actually in your audience? What did they say about Leroy’s case?
Douglass: They basically reinforced what I had said about why he shouldn’t have been killed. It was a blessing that they did that. This was very up-close and personal for them, of course.
Spirit: Even though their own sister was murdered by this man, they still felt his execution was a miscarriage of justice?
Douglass: Exactly. Yeah, by the time he was executed, even the prosecuting attorney who prosecuted him thought he should be spared.

Prosecutor Calls Death Penalty ‘Barbaric’

Spirit: Just before Leroy White’s execution, The Huntsville Times reported that Bruce Gardner, the district attorney who prosecuted him, condemned the death penalty as a “barbaric, abhorrent practice.” What did you think about the D.A.’s turnaround?
Douglass: Well, it’s a good thing. And I thought it was about time. We’re all complicit in different ways with the system of violence and he faced the way that he was complicit and made changes, and that’s very good. It’s like the people at the Trident base who left their work in the military. You see that what you’re doing is wrong and hopefully you have the guts and the wisdom to stop that and do something else, and, in his case, to come out and oppose it.
Spirit: When Gardner spoke out against the execution, he said, “I’ll be in a somber, contemplative mood wishing the best for Leroy.” Does his change of heart give you any hope?
Douglass: Yeah, in terms of the death penalty, it gives me hope. Of course, it was too late to do anything to help Leroy, but yeah, it offers hope. It’s the same question as how do we respond to the White Train coming in with nuclear weapons, because there’s this tremendous violence being done and the process of nonviolence is long and slow. It’s a similar kind of thing, you know, because Leroy is dead.
Spirit: So even though it was a sign of hope when the prosecutor spoke out against the execution, it was too late to save Leroy’s life.
Douglass: Well, that’s true. One of the central conflicts in nonviolence is that we all have to be converted. We all have to be converted over time, and in the meantime, a lot of suffering goes on. You know, that was one of the conflicts we had around how to act at the Trident base because the trains were going in carrying nuclear weapons and that made people kind of frantic, and the rate of nonviolent change is slow, so you have to be patient.
We were pretty involved in the process of watching all these people come forward and saying that Leroy shouldn’t be executed, and saying that the judge wouldn’t have sentenced him to death except that it was his first death-penalty case and he didn’t know what he was doing. And the prosecutor now thinks the death penalty is barbaric, and a couple of Leroy’s lawyers who defended him said they were incompetent, and that they were tax lawyers or whatever. So nobody thought he should be killed.
Spirit: Yet he was killed. Do you understand why no one would listen when all these people spoke out?
Douglass: Well, it’s the system. The governor could have granted clemency and I don’t know why he didn’t because he was at the end of his second term. He was about to go out of office and it wouldn’t have cost him anything because he couldn’t run again. So I don’t know why he didn’t, but he didn’t.

At Mary’s House, Jayden prepares for his first day of kindergarten. Mary’s House offers a stable home for families seeking employment and permanent housing.
At Mary’s House, Jayden prepares for his first day of kindergarten. Mary’s House offers a stable home for families seeking employment and permanent housing.


Visits on the Eve of Execution

Spirit: You and Jim were present when Leroy was executed. What was that experience like for you on a personal level?
Douglass: Well, the way it works, the whole thing is nuts. When you’re on death row, you get four visits a month and you have a list of four to six people who can visit you, but only two of them at the same time. So Leroy was on death row for almost 20 years and his visits, when he had any, were totally curtailed.
Then, the week before they kill you, starting on Monday morning, you can have up to 15 people at a time for the entire day, all week. So we went down on Tuesday morning with his family, and for the next days, we all sat around.
It’s like a big gymnasium with sort of school lunch tables, and the only food you get comes from the junk food machines they have. We stayed there from 9 to 5 every day with Leroy and his family. Most of the family came at least part of the time.
It’s just surreal that you know they’re going to kill this man and he’s perfectly healthy — well, not perfectly healthy, but he’s certainly not about to die. And they’re going to kill him on Thursday and we’re all sitting around talking. The family is reminiscing about “do you remember this and that?” and “how is so and so?”
This went on for three days and we’re all listening in the back of our heads to see if the lawyer is going to come and say there’s a stay of execution, or if the governor is going to grant clemency. We’re all kind of waiting for that, but nobody’s really talking about it. It’s just bizarre. I don’t know how we did that. It’s very strange.
Spirit: Was his daughter there at the prison too?
Douglass: La Tonya was there the whole time. On the last day, she tried to personally call the governor to plead for her father’s life. She ended up missing a couple hours of that last day because she was sure the governor was going to return her call, and she was at the motel waiting because there was no way for him to call her in the prison. Eventually, she came back.
They kill people here at 6 p.m., so at about 4 o’clock, they came in and took Leroy out. And that’s like a funeral with the person there alive, with people wailing and the whole thing.
Spirit: His family was crying and anguished when they led him away?
Douglass: Oh yeah, yeah. And La Tonya was just a basket case at that point because she had really convinced herself that the governor would do something. She was wailing and crying and hugging Leroy. It was not a good scene.
The worst part of it is, when this happens in Alabama, there’s nowhere for the family to go. They come and take the person off to a little concrete-block building where they kill people. And the family goes out the visiting entrance into the parking lot and then that’s it for them.
They don’t even have any way of knowing whether the person’s been killed or when he’s been killed. There’s no communication at all. So they get in their car and drive back to Selma, knowing that as they’re driving, Leroy’s being strapped down to the gurney. It’s just inhumane, not only to the person being killed, but to the whole family.

Witnesses to an Execution

Spirit: Did you and Jim witness the actual execution itself?
Douglass: Yeah, we did.
Spirit: Did Leroy’s family not want to see his execution?
Douglass: Leroy didn’t want them to. I don’t know if they would have wanted to, but he didn’t want them to see that.
Spirit: Tell me what you witnessed when you went into that concrete building.
Douglass: Well, we were driven to the concrete building by two guards in a car who were laughing and joking because this is just part of their job. Then, when we got there, we sat outside for two hours until 8 o’clock — not knowing why, because they kill people at 6. All we knew was that he hadn’t yet been killed.
It turned out that Clarence Thomas had issued a stay while the Supreme Court read the case — and then he lifted the stay. For two hours nobody knew, and I don’t know if Leroy knew. He was strapped to the gurney that whole time.
Spirit: Oh God.
Douglass: Yeah. So then they take you inside this building, once they finally decide that it’s time. The prisoner is allowed to have witnesses and the victim’s family is allowed to have witnesses, so there are two separate rooms that people can sit in to watch this process through a big glass window. In Leroy’s case, we were the only witnesses and we were there for him and the victim, I guess you could say, because she was family too. And there were reporters.
They opened a curtain and there was Leroy in a very tiny room on a gurney strapped down in cruciform, which is interesting. The arms of the gurney go out to the sides like a cross and he’s got a tube in his vein in his arm and the tube goes into the wall.
There are three people behind the wall who pull levers and nobody knows which one starts the “cocktail” running, so it’s kind of like the firing squad, when nobody’s supposed to know who really does the deed.
But the way you know the actual killing has started is the chaplain, who is in the room with Leroy, kneels down and starts to pray. That’s how you know that they’re killing him. And who knows what a person’s body feels during these things because one of the drugs paralyzes you so you don’t have any way of knowing. I mean, we could tell that he was gasping for breath, and you could tell that he was not comfortable when he died.
Spirit: How long did it take for him to die? Did you have any way of knowing?
Douglass: From the time it started, I think it was probably 10 or 15 minutes for the whole process. They do things: They tap his eye and they call in his ear and they do all of this stuff that’s supposed to prove he’s dead. Then they close the curtain and you get driven off. But he was very calm. He wasn’t struggling. He was as resolved as a person can be, I guess.

Last Words

Spirit: When you talked to Leroy on that last day, what did he say about his upcoming execution?
Douglass: You know what he said? One thing he said was, “I hope they don’t take too long because I’m worried about you all driving home in the dark.”
Spirit: Oh God! Sometimes life is just too strange for me to take.
Douglass: Isn’t that something?
Spirit: That is the trippiest thing I’ve ever heard.
Douglass: The last thing he said on that last day was not for himself. It was for the people who were there to support him.
Spirit: I’ll never figure this life out. Did he say anything else?
Douglass: No other profound last words were said. There was a chaplain who had been meeting with him who came by that day. And, you know, he said he was ready and that kind of thing. He thanked everybody and told us he loved us and all, but no, he didn’t say any last words.
Spirit: What do you think of executions now, after seeing a person that you had come to care about being put to death?
Douglass: Well, I think they’re brutal and barbaric and cruel and inhumane.
When Leroy killed Ruby, that was wrong. But Leroy was in the grip of huge rage and was upset that his whole life was falling apart. She had left him, and I think she was wanting to marry somebody else. He was drunk, he was high on drugs, his whole life was falling apart, and he did this horrible thing.
But when he was executed, there were four or five people in uniform, very cold and dispassionate, doing their jobs, strapping him down, putting poison in his veins.

‘They Put It Down as Homicide’

Spirit: That’s called murder in the first degree, isn’t it? They rationally and deliberately chose to put this man to death. And so did the Supreme Court justices and so did the governor and the government officials who washed their hands of his death.
Douglass: Exactly, yes. So to me, that was much worse than what Leroy did, because he had this whole scenario of anger and rage and drugs and everything falling apart. But when he was executed, nobody was on drugs, nobody was angry, it was all very cold and calculated.
Spirit: And it was murder, whatever they may call it.
Douglass: And murder, yeah. In fact, on the death certificate, when a person is executed, they put it down as homicide.
Spirit: As homicide? They do?
Douglass: They do. We have death certificates that we use in our demonstrations for people who have been killed.
Spirit: When they reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s and executed Gary Gilmore and John Spenkelink, I wrote in our college newspaper that the most lethal killer of all had been unleashed: the state executioner. Think of all the people executed since then.
Douglass: Yeah, we have 203 people on death row right now, most of them men, five of them women, in Alabama. It’s about 60 percent African American, pretty much all poor. If they weren’t poor, they wouldn’t be on death row.
Spirit: Why wouldn’t they be on death row?
Douglass: Because they could afford decent lawyers. In Alabama, if you’re on trial for a capital crime, and you’re indigent, they do appoint you a court-appointed lawyer. But the amount of money is capped at an incredibly low figure, at a level that would pay maybe four or five hours of a lawyer’s time at the rates they charge.
And they are not reimbursed for extra things like mitigating research or forensics. So if you don’t have money to pay for your own lawyer, you’re losing already because unless somebody works on it pro bono, they just aren’t going to be able to do the kind of work that needs to be done.
You may remember that Leroy’s initial lawyer was a guy who hadn’t been a lawyer in Alabama for very long and he advised him to plead not guilty because in Florida, where he had practiced, you couldn’t be convicted of burglary when you were entering a home that you had lived in recently yourself. He told Leroy to plead not guilty and Leroy took his advice, thinking he would serve time. But it turned out the guy was wrong and so Leroy was convicted.
So in the initial stage, you have a court-appointed attorney who is woefully underpaid and probably overworked.
Spirit: What about appeals? Is any money made available for an appeal?
Douglass: If you are convicted of a capital offense, there are two tiers of appeals in Alabama that run consecutively and they’re very complicated legal procedures. And you no longer have a lawyer supplied to you, so you either find somebody that will do it for free — which, as you can imagine, is not easy — or you try and do it yourself, or you just don’t have anybody.
Leroy had a couple different people appointed, all of whom said they were incompetent. A couple of them resigned from his case and never told him they had resigned, so when a date for his death came down, he didn’t even know that he had lost his appeals because he thought he had a lawyer representing him.

The Legacy of Racism

Spirit: Leroy White was an African American man living in Alabama, a state with a terrible history of racism and violence. How does that legacy of racism play out in the injustices you see today?
Douglass: Alabama is still a hugely racist entity. Well, the whole country is a hugely racist entity and I don’t think we’ve really confronted the fact that this United States that we talk about as being the hope of the world was founded on a basis of racism and genocide. First, with the native people who lived here in the beginning before any of the Europeans came. And then, with the wholesale exploitation of all the black people who were kidnapped and brought over here and lived as slaves under a system of institutionalized terrorism which didn’t end when slavery ended. You know, it goes on to this day to a large extent, and it just keeps changing its form.
Spirit: Have there been any significant changes in Birmingham since the civil rights era when it was one of the most notorious cities in the nation?
Douglass: On the one hand, everything is very different in Birmingham. Our city council is largely African American. Our mayor is African American. The last three mayors — all of the mayors since we got here — have been African American. The police chief is African American. You can go down the line and many of these offices that had never been filled by anyone but white, good old boys, now are filled by people who are African American.
On the other hand, there are very few elected prosecutors in the state who are African American and those are the people who decide what charges to bring. The police forces tend to be quite brutal. It depends on where you are, but the racism is still there and to some extent still enshrined in our state constitution.
Spirit: What do you mean? How is racism enshrined in the state constitution?
Douglass: Our constitution for the state of Alabama was written in 1901 by white landowners, former plantation owners, with the explicit purpose of keeping black people and poor white people out of power. It was a reaction to Reconstruction where we actually had black elected officials and black people voting and being treated like human beings.
So this constitution was written in 1901 specifically to keep the plantation class, the planter class, in power. And it still has in it provisions that make it illegal to educate kids together of different races. Right after Jim and I moved here, we defeated in a referendum and took out the part that makes interracial marriage illegal. But that’s only recently, in the last 20 years, and that was a close vote.
Spirit: That’s just unbelievable. And it was a close vote?
Douglass: Yeah, it was. It squeaked through. It’s very insidious because there have been two attempts in the last several years to remove the language that makes it illegal to educate kids together.
Spirit: But doesn’t Brown vs. The Board of Education make separate but equal education illegal?
Douglass: Well, that’s why it’s not a huge issue, because it’s superseded by federal law. The same was true for the miscegenation thing, but you know it’s right there in the law for the state.
Spirit: So symbolically, it’s still a grievous kind of racism that carries over.
Douglass: Exactly. And the solution that they were proposing would be even worse because it removes any assumption that kids were supposed to have an education funded by the state. So, you have to be very careful because it’s really subtle.
And for all these things, you have to have a picture ID to vote. And if you’re a poor black person, you may not have a picture ID and it might not be possible to get one easily or at all.
Spirit: Denying the voting rights of black people was a big tool of the Jim Crow South, and recently, disenfranchisement has become a big tool of the Republicans.
Douglass: Right, exactly. And the overwhelming majority of people in our prisons are African American men who get hit with felonies under the drug war laws. Then they’re felons so they can’t vote, they can’t live in public housing, they can’t get public assistance. There’s a whole list of things that you can’t do once you’re a felon. It means that you can never get back up again because you’re always in the custody of some part of the state — if not in prison, then you’re on probation or parole and you’re just not able to pick yourself up again.
Spirit: Many of the guests at Mary’s House are African American families. Has that opened a new window into what life is like in a city still so burdened by racism?
Douglass: To some extent. For the people at Mary’s House, the primary open windows have to do more with being poor. The people I have really learned a lot from, as far as racism goes, have been my friends from church and people like that who are way more successful in the eyes of society than I’ll ever be. [laughs]
They often have beautiful homes out in the suburbs and they make a lot of money and they’re doctors and lawyers and teachers and all those kinds of things. And they’re still subjected to all the indignities and dangerous things that the people I work with every day in the slums have to deal with. Things like driving while black, and having the talk with your kids so that hopefully they won’t get shot if they get pulled over by the police, and just constant assumptions about who they are that are nowhere remotely true.
Spirit: Constant assumptions about who they are that are based on race?
Douglass: Based on the color of their skin, yeah. When we first came here to Birmingham, we began to go to a little parish called Queen of the Universe, a little black Catholic Church, which is very professional. The people in that church, their kids are judges, federal judges and lawyers and doctors and many of them were teachers — very respectable people.
A whole parish of respectable people, by and large, and a couple of months after we got there, we had a visiting priest who used his sermon to tell people they should stay off drugs and save their money and make sure their kids went to school.
It just kind of took your breath away. We hadn’t been there very long, but we knew enough about these folks to know that he was talking to the wrong audience here, because they wouldn’t even think of that. And it was because of the color of their skin, because he would not have preached that sermon had it been a white parish that he was talking to.
Spirit: It was a white priest giving this inappropriate and condescending sermon?
Douglass: Oh, of course, yeah. It was a white priest. We only have two African American priests in the diocese.
For more on Shelley Douglass please visit:

Living for Peace in the Shadow of Death
Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass, Part 1