Forged in fire: honoring the late Judge Helen Shores Lee

Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham, Alabama,Forged in fire: Honoring the late Judge Helen Shores Lee
Helen Shores Lee. Photo via Samford University Alumni Association

The symbol of Birmingham is a figure made of iron and forged in fire. The same epithet applies to the late Helen Shores Lee. The daughter of prominent civil rights attorney Arthur Shores, Lee became the first African-American woman to serve as judge on the Jefferson County Circuit Court. She passed away on July 2, 2018. She was 77.

“Our hearts go out to the Lee family. We’ve lost a true pioneer in our community.”—Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin via Facebook, July 2, 2018

Lee came of age in a time of violence. In her formative years, between 1947 and 1965, approximately 50 dynamite explosions targeted African Americans in Birmingham.

Her father, who served as an attorney to Martin Luther King Jr., showed great forbearance during those times. So did Lee. She became of wife, mother and grandmother while thriving in her education and career, eventually becoming a judge and author.

As Birmingham moves toward the future, let us celebrate Lee’s life and legacy.

Birmingham, Alabama,Forged in fire: Honoring the late Judge Helen Shores Lee
Lee and sister Barbara coauthored a book about their father and upbringing. Image via Amazon
Family history and early life of Helen Shores Lee
  • 1937: A former Birmingham high school principal named Arthur Shores becomes an attorney.
  • Late 1930s-1940s: He gains prominence as a civil rights attorney. He handles cases about voting rights, police brutality and equal pay for black teachers.

1941: A daughter, Helen, is born to Arthur Shores and wife Theodora.

  • 1952: The family moves to Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood, known as “Dynamite Hill” for the prevalence of bombings targeting African Americans.
  • 1953: Shores represents Autherine Lucy and Pollie Myers, the first black students to enroll and be accepted at the University of Alabama. After Shores successfully argues the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, UA reinstates Lucy as a student in 1956 but expels her days later.
  • 1955 to 56: Arthur Shores represents Martin Luther King Jr., indicted for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • 1963: The Shores’ home is bombed twice within a two-week period.
  • 1965: Before the Selma March, Theodora discovers another bomb at the family home. A bomb squad diffuses it.

“As a child, I learned from my parents early the importance of giving back to the community. As an adult, I have found that giving of your time and service can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life.”—Helen Shores Lee

Professional life of Helen Shores Lee
  • 1962: Lee earns a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Fisk University, and later a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University.
  • 1971 to 1987: She works as a clinical psychologist.
  • 1986 to 1987: She serves as magistrate for the city of Birmingham.
  • 1987: She earns a juris doctorate from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
  • 1988: She joins her father’s practice. She continues to work as a private practice attorney until 2003.
  • 1996 to 2000: She serves on the Alabama State Ethics Commission and as chair from 1999 to 2000.

2003: Helen Shores Lee is appointed circuit judge for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Alabama.

  • 2012: The book “The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill: the Untold Story of Arthur Shores and His Family’s Fight for Civil Rights,” coauthored by Lee and her sister Barbara Sylvia Shores, is published.
  • 2013: Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Central Alabama honors Lee as a Jeana P. Hosch Woman of Valor
  • 2014: Samford University names Lee alumnus of the year.
  • 2017: Lee retires.

Lee was an inspiration to many, and the city of Birmingham will miss her greatly.

Today with a heavy heart I had to say “farewell” to one of the women that inspired me, the Honorable Helen Shores Lee. Judge Lee gave me my first “real” job as her law clerk. She inspired and believed in me more than I did in myself. She believed in living life to the fullest and encouraged me to do the same. She touched the lives of so many, I could always tell when something was happening in the legal world because our phones would ring off the hook for those looking for her advice. There is no justice that my post can do to describe her legacy. She was the embodiment of a mentor, a mom away from home, a civil servant, icon and community pillar. I am honored to have been so close to her and get to know her. Her impact on my life is evident and I celebrate her memory with love. #helenshoreslee

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