Thompson’s Remarks Lincolnesque

In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln said: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it will never forget what they did here.” The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse Annex on 12 November 1996 reminded this columnist of Mr. Lincoln’s prophetic remarks.

The short program, hosted by the U.S. General Services Administration, included remarks by the architect, Lee Simms, and Mayor Emory Folmar, followed by short speeches from U. S. Senators, Howell Heflin and Richard Shelby, U. S. Senator-elect Jeff Sessions and U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald B. Tjoflat. The Honorable Myron H. Thompson, Chief Judge Middle District of Alabama, sparked the Lincoln-remembrance during his closing remarks.

Judge Thompson’s remarks, without commentary, follow:

Senators, Senator-elect, Mayor, and other distinguished guests, Some of you, in particular those of you from GSA, may wonder why I have been such a pain in the side over the last four years over the direction of this project. I think it is time I explained.

Next year I will turn 50. In one sense, I will be fifty, and in another sense, I will be only half that age. For the first 25 years of my life, there was only one place in the entire expanse of this state’s government that allowed, let alone, wanted me as a person, and that place is the plot of land lying over there, on which now sits the current Federal courthouse. It is a small plot but it was the only institution of government of which I felt a part. Indeed, one of the principal reasons for my return South was to practice in that court, on that plot of land. Home for me was there, and only there. That court was an island of hope in a sea of hostility.

When I did return, however, I found that that plot, that island, had expanded and that now it was possible I could be a full Alabama citizen. I therefore measure my full Alabama citizenship from that return. In this sense. . .unlike many of you born in this state but of a hue different from mine. . . I measure my Alabama citizenship not from my birth, though I was born here, but from my return 25 years ago. In this sense then, I am a young man, young to citizenship here; and, in this sense, this State is a young government, young to the old democratic notions of equality and full citizenship.

Therefore, when I became Chief Judge and found that one of my first projects was the expansion of the Federal Courthouse, I knew that I was here for a purpose. I was old enough to remember what was and yet young enough to appreciate what is and what could still be.

I also knew that any architect who took on this project would have a difficult task, for he or she would have to bridge this past with this future. There were two unnegotiable points: first, the new structure would not detract from the old, and, second, the new structure had to enhance and even expound on the old, and give us something that would take into the next century those ideals that had made the current courthouse no longer an island.

What Lee Simms has done here is to achieve that end. . .wittingly or unwittingly. I don’t know whether the semi-circular structure was merely a work of art for him. But for me it is not just that, it is much more, a great deal more. It symbolizes a crown, a headpiece of justice, with the current courthouse sitting as its singular and foremost jewel. It is also not without significance that the crown is only a half circle. A half, or semi-circle, is incomplete, and this circle is incomplete because it should be so. The other half of that circle is state government, and in particular the State judicial system. Under our system of Federalism, one arm of government can never be complete in and of itself. The full circle is, and should remain, a partnership between our Federal and State judicial systems. But the centerpiece of that full circle, the jewel in the crown is and will remain the Frank M. Johnson Federal Building and Courthouse. . .that symbol of what all systems of justice, Federal and State, can, should, and must be.


Originally Published: 4 December 1996, Montgomery Advertiser

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