Moms and daughters: What Birmingham public servants Crystal and Carole Smitherman learned from each other

Reckon Women’s series on Southern mothers and daughters who share the same profession is part of Reckon’s celebration of Women’s History Month. 

Crystal Smitherman, 27, is a Birmingham city councilor for District 6, the same district where her mother Carole Smitherman served as city councilor in the early 2000s. She’s also an attorney, like her mother, who is now a Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge. 

The two women talked with Reckon this week about public service, law and lessons they’ve learned from each other. Their answers have been edited for length. 

Carole has been president of the Birmingham City Council and was Birmingham’s first African-American female mayor, assuming office after Mayor Larry Langford was convicted on bribery charges and removed from office. She’s also been a deputy district attorney and a municipal judge. She has a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and a law degree from Miles Law School. Her family is influential politically and includes her husband, Alabama State Sen. Roger Smitherman. 

Crystal, 27, is a fifth-generation Birmingham resident and has been on the Birmingham City Council since 2019. She is also an attorney in her family’s firm, where her work includes civil and family law. She has a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University and a law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law. 

Q: What got you interested in public service? 

Carole: My mother was the president of the Alabama PTA (Parent Teacher Association) of the colored group, and then it merged with the whole state PTA. So my brother and I used to travel with her around the state as she accomplished her goals. That’s when I first saw a woman who could do it all. 

When I was 11 or 12, my best friend was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Denise McNeal. I wanted to find out what happened, who killed her and why. That motivated me at a young age to want to know the law and how it could be used to help people. 

Crystal: My mom and I are very close, so when I was young I was always with her. When she had to go to City Hall, I had to go to City Hall. I went with her to community service and neighborhood meetings, so I was familiar with everything she did. I picked up a lot of her political wisdom and knowledge, how to maneuver in the political world, from her.  

When my parents first opened their law office, I was a baby. Mom was still breastfeeding me. So I’ve been around the law all my life. And I love being an attorney. The first case I won was with an African American young man who was wrongfully accused. I was able to get him out of jail and now he’s on his way to a senior year of high school and has several football scholarship offers. That’s what’s beautiful — being able to combat systematic oppression that sometimes the criminal justice system has against people of color and in particular, young people of color. I love being able to fight against that with my knowledge and my license. 

Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from your mom? 

Crystal: My mom is a very strong Black woman. I hear a lot that it’s hard for a woman to have a work-life balance, but she’s done everything. She’s a mother, grandmother, the first African American woman circuit judge in Alabama, she was a city councilor and mayor. Doing all of that, she still always made every golf tournament of mine, and cooked us breakfast every morning. 

I’m so proud of my mom because I’ve been able to see so many projects she was involved with come to fruition. Railroad Park, the baseball field – those were major projects that she was involved in. 

I saw her resilience no matter if she won or lost a race – she always knew how to bounce back. She’s so intelligent, once the wheels get turning in her mind she produces these powerful words or these powerful ideas.  

She told me to look at being an attorney or politician not as having power, but as having responsibility. 

Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from your daughter? 

Carole: I’ve learned from Crystal about not judging. When Crystal was 8 or 9, she would always want to stop and give the man on the corner a dollar. I was like, ‘He can get a job,’ but she said ‘No ma’am, he may be in a situation where he can’t.’ She’s taught me to see the whole picture and not just what I want to see.  

Crystal is a confident, athletic person, and I’ve learned from her the importance of exercise. One of my goals for this spring is to learn how to putt. (Crystal is an avid golfer.) 

Crystal is schedule-driven as well. I used to run helter-skelter to get everything done, but she’s organized that part of me. And her love for family runs deep. She’s the only one who remembers everybody’s birthdays. 

Q: How has your profession changed from when you started? 

Carole: While I was in law school, I worked in the (Jefferson County) Courthouse in the clerk’s office. I met a man named Earl Morgan, who was the district attorney for Jefferson County. He said he had not hired any Blacks in his lifetime, but he said he was hiring me because he liked my handshake. I was the first woman of color deputy district attorney and I opened the first victim office in the state and did prosecutorial work. 

Q: What is something you hope she’s learned from you? 

Crystal: To always give people grace. No matter how somebody treats you, it’s better to kill somebody’s meanness with kindness. I tell her that I don’t want to live my life focusing on the people who don’t like us. I want to focus on how I can still be an effective changemaker with or without them.  

Carole: I’ve taught Crystal and all of my children that you find your purpose, then stand on your truth. Know right from wrong. And then I have asked them to use their common sense in situations, because common sense will take you even further than education. What you learn from life, use that for the good of the people you serve. 

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