PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) - Before A.J. Cooper turned 30, he became mayor of Alabama's fifth largest city.
He was a product of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Prichard was still a segregated community in 1972, despite a large African-American population.
Cooper recently talked about those days, and how the influence of some incredible men prepared him for his two historic terms in office.
"I guess to be a politician, you have to be an optimist and then believe in the good that people can do. So, I'm optimistic about Prichard."
At 28, he defeated the city's white incumbent mayor, a historic win as the first ever African-American to do so in a white majority Southern city.
EARLY STRUGGLES PREPARED COOPER FOR HIS FUTURE
Growing up in Mobile in the early 1950s, Cooper was keenly aware of the challenges.
"The experience of going to a Catholic school, St. Peter Claver, down the bay, and learning that the school was segregated," he said. "And, I think it came from doing something like marching in the Christ the King Day parade, where all of the white schools marched in the front of the parade and the black schools had to march in the back of the parade and me asking my father why that was, and his having to explain that to me. And, I think that was the first real understanding I began to have."
His father, Algernon Johnson Cooper, Sr., was an insurance executive and civic minded businessman. Cooper said his father showed him courage in difficult times.
In 1954, integration was finally a legal option after Brown v. Board of Education passed.
"My brother William graduated from the eighth grade that same year. And so, my dad thought the logical thing would be to enroll his oldest son in McGill Institute," Cooper said. "Well, Archbishop Toolen became so angry that not only would he not let my father register my brother, he refused to let my brother go to Heart of Mary High School, either. And, that was so outrageous. The memory of that stuck with me, and my father's courage in doing it."
BELIEVING IN EDUCATION
Like his brother, A.J. also left Mobile to attend a Catholic high school. He went to Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, Illinois. And like two of his brothers, he also graduated from a Catholic university, Notre Dame.
Cooper then got a law degree at New York University.
A leader and an activist like his dad, Cooper founded the Black American Law Students' Association, which still exists today.
CAMPAIGNING FOR ROBERT KENNEDY
His political and leadership skills were noticed by Senator Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.
"I did minority recruitment all around the country for the campaign. Finally, (I) wound up in Los Angeles, California, where I ran the Kennedy Watts Campaign Headquarters. In terms of mentors, in terms of someone to model yourself after, there's no one better than Bobby Kennedy. I think he would have been an outstanding president. He had a much better feel, I think, for what was happening as far as race relations," Cooper said.
After Bobby Kennedy's assassination, Cooper returned to Mobile where he became a partner with Attorney Vernon Crawford's law firm.
"Vernon Crawford was one of my mentors, really a hero in my opinion," he said. "Vernon graduated from Brooklyn Law School and came home when he was the only black lawyer in Mobile, opening his practice on Davis Avenue. Vernon had set high standards and really had represented people who had no representation. He was the first lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Birdie Mae Davis v. the County of Mobile Public School System in the desegregation fight. He was quite an outstanding man."
The Prichard branch of the NAACP was one of his clients. Cooper said Prichard was still a very segregated City.
"It was a place where Alabama Governor George Wallace would come every Labor Day to give his State of the State address. It had a very active Ku Klux Klan. They had maybe two or three black employees. John Langen, who was another hero of mine, was the president of the Prichard NAACP. John suggested I run for mayor. So I decided to do that," Cooper said.
BLAZING TRAILS AND MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Cooper moved to Prichard a year before the election to establish residency. He raised enough money for his campaign, and friends from the Kennedy campaign came South to help.
The Cooper campaign did some things never done before in Prichard.
"Billboards for example, telephone banks, polling, voter registration in a massive way. (We did) lots of door to door leaflet distribution and lots of young people where involved, ‘Cooper's Kids,'" he said.
Cooper won the election and went to work.
"It was daunting, too, because Prichard did not have, as it does not today, much of an industrial tax base" Cooper said. "In the 1950s the city council of the City of Prichard and the mayor permitted Mobile to take and annex International Paper Company and Scott Paper Company. They formed 80 percent of Prichard's tax base. Now, why in the world would anyone permit that to
happen?" Cooper said. "The only thing I can imagine would be graft. So, I had to raise most of the money from the federal government. And since I was familiar with that world, I was able to do a good job of bringing tens of millions of dollars to Prichard. Under my administration, we completely redid the drainage system and paving all of the drains which were still exposed in some areas, paving them over."
Cooper believes that support from regional industrial leaders could help land-rich Prichard become a gateway to the city to Mobile.
With a lifetime of accomplishments, Cooper is a true trail blazing pioneer.
He was a founder and the first president of several mayor's organizations, including the National Conference of Black Mayors.
He's worked on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Harold Ford in the Office of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Moon Landrieu, and as Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
When Cooper was asked how should he be remembered, he replied, "I guess that I was a father of three children. I encouraged young people to get involved, and that I stood for change for the better."
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