By eight-thirty in the morning, Alice Finch Lee is at her desk in her law practice on the second floor of a bank building in Monroeville, Alabama, opening the stacks of correspondence she faces five days a week. Lee, or Miss Alice, as she is known in this small, Deep South town, turns 100 on September 11, 2011.
She is thought to be the oldest practicing woman lawyer in the United States. For over half a century she has been a tireless pioneer for people’s rights and an advocate of racial equality in a time and place when such a position was unpopular and even dangerous. She is also the older sister of Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, the most widely read book in the United States.
Today civil rights milestones are celebrated by rightly giving prominence to heroes of the movement, from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Rosa Parks to the unsung thousands who participated in sit-ins and marches, often facing fire hoses, snarling police dogs and even death. Less visible were an army of middle-class white Southerners, who from the pages of their newspapers, the pulpits of their churches , the quiet offices of their law firms and the benches of the court room gave legs to sustain a movement that needed the consent and cooperation of the Southern establishment and the ordinary white person.
Alice Finch Lee probably never realized she was a radical in disguise. She just felt throughout her life that she was doing the right thing, following in the footsteps of a father, who in the 1930s, publicly confronted a gathering of the Klu Klux Klan, facing them down on the street in front of his newspaper office, forcing them to disband. First, at the age of eighteen, with her father as the co-owner of a newspaper, then through her church and finally as Alabama’s most celebrated lawyer, Miss Alice has been a quiet warrior seeing that justice is done in her small town of Monroeville.
Working tirelessly for her beloved United Methodist Church, she has been instrumental in turning it into a place of worship where African-Americans are welcome as part of the congregation. The Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, pastor emeritus of the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, recalls how Miss Alice was a mentor to him when in 1960 as a young minister he defied the Klu Klux Klan and signed a petition to integrate buses in Mobile, Alabama.
That was a time, he remembered, when black Americans suffered terribly, and people took in racism with their mother’s milk. Few people realize the extent to which racism is layered. When you deal with one form of racism, it is frustrating to see that just underneath that form is another layer. Many people quit and went about their business when one particular form of racism was finally conquered. The most redemptive thing about Miss Alice and her kind is that their sense of justice and fair play never stops shining. These are the people who successfully detect and quietly combat racism no matter what form it takes. They are quiet, publicity shy souls who are not out shouting from the rooftops that they are about to change the world, but their persistent, inch-by-inch efforts have had that effect. If this movement could be summed up as a T-shirt logo, it might say, “Don’t Mess with Miss Alice!”
In the Deep South, where much of the population has never stopped fighting the Civil War, Miss Alice and her family espoused values that were ahead of the times in which they lived. While Miss Alice is quiet and reserved, her family nickname, “Bear”, speaks of her character. “Miss Alice will always do the right thing in any situation, even if the right thing is hard. She is Atticus Finch in a skirt” says Dr. Butts, referring to the small town lawyer hero in her sister’s best-selling novel. She is a leading example of progressive, quietly combative white Southerners who helped to integrate the South. It is the Alice Lees of the world whose constant witness to the truth saves us from falling back into old evils which are buried but not dead.
A close friend of Miss Alice has described her as “the most selfless person who walks the face of the earth”, and one who believes a person’s actions speak louder than words. Both as a lawyer and a caring citizen of her town, Monroeville, she has helped countless individuals of all colors cope with their problems. She has provided free legal counsel and advice to people who could not afford such help, and her quiet generosity has put many young people through college who otherwise could not have afforded higher education.
Although her famous, publicity-shy sister retreated from public view not long after her novel became a best-seller, Miss Alice is recognized as one of the outstanding lawyers in the State of Alabama. As a trailblazer, she has served as a role model for young women who otherwise might not have set their sights so high. Her broad spectrum of wisdom and experience in the law is such that when somebody needs guidance on a legal matter, people in the know say, “Go ask Miss Alice.”
In 1929, after one year of college, she returned home to help with family affairs and at the age of eighteen joined her father as a partner when they bought the local newspaper, the Monroe Journal together. Later, while working full-time, she studied pre-law at night not intending to become a lawyer, but simply to sharpen her thinking. After a couple of years study, however, she got “hooked” on the law and ended up graduating from the Birmingham School of Law and passing the Alabama bar exam in 1943. When her father invited her to come home and practice their profession together, she asked him, “How is a small town going to react to a woman in a law office?” He smiled and said, “You’ll never know until you’ve tried it!” Taking his advice, she broke the mold of an heir apparent’s always being a man.
Miss Alice has never flown in an airplane, but she recalls the day she first saw one. It was in 1920, when one of her schoolmates in the fourth grade came running into the classroom shouting and pointing out the window, “Somethin’ is flyin’ around out there!” The entire fourth grade rushed outside to view an airborne object which few, if any, of them had ever before seen – an airplane circling overhead.
Never married, Miss Alice makes her home in a modest brick house where she has lived since 1952. She is a voracious reader; almost every wall in her home is lined with book shelves. Her mind is razor sharp, and she often reads several books concurrently, both serious history and current bestsellers. As curious as she is about the world around her, these days Miss Alice is no traveler. She limits herself to trips along Alabama’s dusty country roads where she likes to explore small churches and to eat fried catfish and hush puppies in local Mom and Pop restaurants. Inheriting from her mother a love of puzzles, she still delights in attacking the New York Times Sunday crossword which a friend faxes to her every week.
Impeccably dressed each day in elegant, conservative skirts and jackets, Reebok sneakers being her only concession to informality and comfort, Miss Alice admits that she has no time for computers or cell phones. She also limits television viewing to sports programs where Alabama teams are playing. .
Even though she is known as a no-nonsense lawyer, humor seems to envelope almost everything Miss Alice does, even talking of death. Recently she and her pastor, the Reverend Butts, were discussing funeral arrangements. When she told him she wanted no eulogy, only the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction at her interment, he allowed as how, when the time came, he could do what he wanted since she would already be gone from this world. They both ended up having a hearty laugh.
Although today she considers herself a Republican and would never agree to being labeled a liberal, as she enters her second century of life, Miss Alice is the stuff that change is made of. Americans of all colors should salute her when she turns 100 on 9/11.