Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Judge William Alsup, federal district judge in San Francisco, has written a new book, Won Over, on his times growing up in segregated Mississippi. This compelling story explains to readers how a white man growing up in the deep south was won over to the right side of history.
Judge Alsup was kind enough to take a little bit of time to answer some questions about his story and this compelling new book.
About Judge Alsup
Judge William Alsup was born in Mississippi in 1945 and attended state-segregated white public schools until his junior year at Mississippi State University. The first African American student would enroll in the college that year, marking the author’s first experience in an integrated school. Alsup was accepted to Harvard University in 1967, which led him to move from his home state for the first time. At Harvard, Alsup earned a law degree and a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government. In 1971–1972, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, working on the abortion cases and the “Trees Have Standing” case. Alsup then returned to Mississippi, where he practiced civil rights law before eventually relocating to California as a trial lawyer. In 1999, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate as a United States District Judge in San Francisco. He has presided over a number of high-profile trials, with more than two hundred of his opinions being reprinted in official legal reporters. He is also the author of Such a Landscape! and Missing in the Minarets. Alsup is married with two children and two grandchildren.
How has your life story impacted you as a federal judge?
Fairness and decency to all regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation or political persuasion. Also, the right to petition our government for redress of grievance and the right of protest are every bit as important in making our democracy work as the right to vote.
For any young lawyer reading your book, what do you believe the biggest message is that they should get out of it?
I wrote Won Over because I’m in my seventies and in a few years there won’t be many of us left who can say what it was like to live through that historic era, the era of the civil rights movement, especially from the viewpoint of a white kid in Mississippi who came to see the conflict between the entrenched system versus the fairness and decency most of us learned from our parents. Most white kids, even if they recognized the conflict, simply went with the flow of everyday life and remained on the wrong side of history. A few of us recognized the conflict, worried over it, and finally chose the right side of history. So even in Mississippi there were a few white kids who wound up doing the right thing back when doing the right thing wasn’t easy.
The message for young lawyers? There are several. At some point in your career, you will feel a conflict between where you’re headed versus what is fair and decent. Have the courage to be willing to change course. Beyond that, let them find their own message in the story.
Why is it important for young lawyers to get involved with public service?
Public service is extremely important because the vast majority of our progress in America has come, not from the people we send to Washington, but from the professional class, including the professionals who serve in government. Lawyers are important in shaping public policy.
Any additional comments or thoughts?
I emphasize that I was not one of the true civil rights champions who put their lives on the line over and again. I was just someone who saw what was right and took a stand against the State of Mississippi but within the safety of our college campus.
Thank you to Judge Alsup for taking the time to respond to these questions and thank you also to NewSouth Books for providing me with a copy of this book.
Judge Alsup's book is available now on Amazon.