In Alabama, Susan Watson Took on the Powerful in Defense of Our Liberties and Won. We Celebrate a Life Well Lived.
In opposing the raft of bills seeking to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion, Susan Watson often commented, “Next it will be a crime to be a woman in Alabama.” And then she got to work overseeing the equivalent of seven federal court challenges to such restrictions in her first three years as the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama. After a brief illness, Susan died unexpectedly last week, and Alabama lost a champion for civil liberties.
I knew Susan from my earliest days at the ACLU starting in 2000 through the present: as a plaintiff in voucher litigation in Florida, as a community activist in Pensacola, Florida; as an ACLU of Florida board member; as a colleague when she became the regional director in the Pensacola office of the ACLU of Florida; as my executive director in Alabama; and as my friend.
The ACLU of Alabama has a long and proud history, but when Susan took over in April 2013, she proceeded to elevate the organizational presence to meet many civil liberties’ challenges. I offer but a few examples.
Susan Watson with Ray Arsenault, former president of the ACLU of Florida and civil rights historian, at the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in March 2015.
When the Alabama legislature passed a law requiring abortion doctors to have local hospital admitting privileges, Susan was there to tell them that the ACLU would sue to block the law. And we did sue, obtained a judgment declaring the law unconstitutional, and handed the state a $1.7 million bill for attorneys’ fees. When the lawsuit was filed, House Speaker Mike Hubbard called the ACLU an “extremist organization.” He has since been removed from office after having been convicted on multiple corruption charges.
When Chief Justice Roy Moore did all in his power to thwart the momentum of same-sex marriage recognition in Alabama, Susan ensured that the ACLU joined with other organizations to obtain a judgment overriding the Alabama Supreme Court and Justice Moore’s administrative orders. Justice Moore has since been suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court for those actions.
When Gov. Bentley barred Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds for its non-abortion family planning services, Susan pressed for the ACLU to sue and we obtained a permanent injunction against the governor and $50,000 in fees for having done so. The governor has since been mired down in personal scandal and has been relegated to the sidelines.
With the years of experience she had in Florida, Susan hit the ground running in Alabama and never let up. We will truly miss her drive, her ambition, her leadership and, most of all, her potential. But we will press on in her memory and her spirit.