Al McSurely considers himself a ju jitsu lawyer, using the law and the legal process to defend people of color and turn the tables on governmental entities acting unconstitutionally.
For more than 30 years, McSurely has been an uncompromising civil rights activist and attorney, helping reconstitute the NAACP branch in his adopted hometown of Chapel Hill, and volunteering as a leader of the North Carolina state NAACP conference and the new Poor People’s Campaign.
But his belief in equality for all stretches back to his boyhood and his deeply religious mother.
Gertrude McSurely was brought up in Indiana as a member of the abolitionist Disciples of Christ Church. She taught McSurely and his sisters about social justice based on her understanding of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. His father, Alexander McSurely, was a journalist whose parents were Scottish Presbyterian abolitionists steeped in the teachings of the Presbyterian Church. His grandfather, Col. Thomas Alexander Walker, was one of 10 family members to serve with the Union army during the Civil War. These family traditions ignited a fire within the young McSurely.
After graduating high school in Arlington, VA, McSurely, enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in psychology in 1959.
In 1963, McSurely followed his father’s journalistic footsteps, becoming co-editor of the Gum Springs News, a weekly paper in Fairfax County.
Moving to eastern Kentucky in 1967 proved a major milestone in his life as an anti-racism organizer. Working with the Congress of Racial Equality, the Appalachian Volunteers, and other organizations, he and his second wife, Margaret Herring, took on the challenge of building an integrated movement against racism, poverty and war. He expected that his anti-war, anti-racism, and pro-union views could put the family at risk; and he was right. In 1967, following a rally against local strip mine operators, they were arrested on the charge of sedition.
“It never crossed my mind anything like that would ever happen to me,” McSurely said. “I was a blessed white boy. That illusion dissipated that night. And it’s still gone.”
In 1968, their home was dynamited and, in 1969, they were arrested on a charge of contempt of Congress.
While fighting the charges alongside attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, McSurely worked as a middle school teacher in Maryland and in New York, as an associate professor at Antioch University in Washington, DC. He also worked as a letter carrier and published a newspaper for the letter carrier’s union.
After a 17-year legal battle, McSurely and Herring succeeded in defeating the criminal charges and in winning a federal civil suit. The experience gave him a new appreciation for how the legal system could be used to benefit people, teaching him that mediation is not always an option, that sometimes challenging authority is more beneficial, especially when people in power seek to manipulate their citizens.
The verdict marked a shift in McSurely’s civil rights work. With funding from the jury award, he enrolled in law school at North Carolina Central University. He graduated in 1988 at age 51 and began practicing ju jitsu law in Chapel Hill. At age 82, he continues to practice movement-building and civil rights law.
Throughout the decades, he has continually drawn upon a lesson he learned while jailed in Kentucky, where he met a man charged with siphoning gas from another vehicle into his own empty gas tank.
“When you are an organizer or a righteous warrior, your job is to drain fear out of the world,” McSurely said. “Fear is the cause of hatred and violence. The best leaders use their power to drain fear, while others continue to put fear into the world.”
McSurely is married to O’Linda Watkins, a respected grassroots civil rights leader in the NC Sand Hills. They are full-time volunteers for the NAACP and the new Poor Peoples Campaign. They have nine children from earlier marriages, 13 grandchildren, and “a handful” of great-grandchildren, he said.
They continue to fight for civil rights and racial equality, McSurely said, “to ensure our children and the children of the world” will enjoy a world free from racial discrimination.
— By Taylor Miller