As an Army paratrooper, a prosecutor, judge and community activist, Judge Charles Price has long been a catalyst for change. It’s a career that has prepared him well to lead an organization known for its mission to create jobs, opportunities and a better quality of life in Montgomery and the River Region. “Being Chairman of the Chamber is an honor, and I’m following in a long list of leaders who care deeply about Montgomery and have worked hard to make our city and region grow and prosper,” said Price.
Price has worked in our state’s justice system for more than five decades, as an Alabama assistant attorney general, Montgomery County Deputy District Attorney and then as a city judge and finally, as judge for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit of Montgomery County.
When asked about his legacy and what he hopes he’s leaving behind, he doesn’t list his landmark cases (and there have been several). Instead, he stresses that he views his time as a prosecutor and on the bench as a service to the people of Montgomery County, and that one of his main goals was to break down barriers. “I always wanted to make sure that people who didn’t feel comfortable talking to those they saw as ‘authority’ or the law, people who felt on the margins, that they felt like they could talk to me. I had a reputation as being approachable and open, as being the guy who would listen and if needed, help you find answers,” he said.
He also had a reputation for running his courtroom with a firm yet gentle hand. He retired from the bench in 2015, but he hasn’t really slowed down. Today, in addition to working as a private practice attorney and serving as the Chamber’s Chairman of the Board, he’s also serving as Senior Advisor to Mayor Strange. In his roles for both the city and Chamber, he’s operating from his “tough but fair” perspective, believing it’s just as applicable to economic development, job creation and the day-to-day duties of getting business done as it was in the courtroom.
He’s also working to improve communication and understanding between different groups and interests, just as he tried to do in his previous career. “I am obviously not a businessman, but I do know what a good business climate can do for a place; it means jobs and that means stronger families, which means better schools. It adds up to a good future for all,” he said. “And the more people invested in and involved in the area’s business initiatives, the better things will be for everyone here. Everyone matters, and everyone has something to offer.”
It’s why he touts a culture of inclusiveness and equality that’s rooted in things he witnessed while growing up in a working-class community right outside the city limits. He watched his parents and others, most with little education, work hard for their families, which instilled in him a strong work ethic and a burning ambition to do something big. “We all worked hard; there was no time to be idle,” he said. “All the kids understood that we were supposed to do our best and to do something even better than our parents had been able to do.”
He realized young that he was good at debate, which got people saying he’d probably be a lawyer or a minister. “My mom was hoping for minister,” he said. “And I didn't really know what a lawyer was or what they did; I didn't know any.” But then, when he was in ninth grade, Price learned what good lawyers do and how they do it, watching the drama of the modern civil rights movement unfold right in front of his eyes. “I knew then I wanted to do that, to be a lawyer and to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
He found more inspiration even closer to home. “There were some night clubs in our community, and I remember a couple of times when there was violence there, it seemed like the perpetrator got off too easily,” he said. “I didn't understand how someone could commit a crime on a Friday night and by Saturday morning, be out of jail, walking around in our community again. The victim had no control in that situation; it was as if they and their suffering had no value.” That cemented his commitment to pursuing law school and sparked the idea that as a lawyer, he would help the victims of crime.
After high school, he couldn't afford college, so he enlisted in the Army, and like his brothers before him, became a Special Forces paratrooper. He’d married his high school sweetheart, and she was studying at Tuskegee University. By the time his military service was done, she had gotten a teaching job in Virginia, so he joined her there and enrolled in Virginia Union College. After graduation, he went to law school at George Washington University in Washington D.C.
In 1973, with his law degree in hand and a desire to be a prosecutor in his heart, he happily moved back home to Montgomery to accept the position of Assistant Attorney General offered to him by Attorney General Bill Baxley. In 1974, Baxley appointed him as district attorney in Escambia County. He came back home again to serve as Montgomery County’s deputy district attorney in 1975, where he prosecuted several major felony cases as well as some political corruption cases. “I enjoyed prosecutor work; I enjoyed helping victims and helping them get answers, no matter who they were,” he said.
In 1982, Montgomery mayor Emory Folmar appointed Price as a municipal judge, making him the city’s first African American in that position. “I was the first to wear a robe too,” he said. “Others in that job took it a little casually. I like to think I professionalized that court.” In 1983, Governor George Wallace appointed Price to be a Montgomery County Circuit Judge, a title he held for three more decades, as he was elected back onto the bench time and time again.
The sense of justice that he developed over his more than 40 years in courtrooms is part of the motivation behind his work for the city today. “I’ve always admired Mayor Strange’s brand of leadership, and when I retired, I told him I wanted to help with the city’s progress. I asked what I could do,” Price said. “He asked me to serve as his advisor, and I’m proud to do it.”
Price began by spearheading the city’s Small and Minority Business Initiative. “I wanted to make sure those businesses got a chance to be a part of the economic progress going on in the city,” he said. “The initiative, now a city resolution, says that for all of the city’s outside contracts for services, we have a goal of 30 percent of those contracts going to small or minority businesses. So far, it’s working extremely well.”
One major aspect is making the information necessary to apply for city contracts readily and easily available. “We realized we needed to adequately explain the proper procedures and protocols to our small businesses,” he said. But Price sees the initiative going beyond equal opportunity; he sees it building relationships as well. “We’re now getting all these different companies and groups talking to each other, interacting, where maybe they weren't before, and not just on the worksite. We’re bringing folks together — working together to drive the city forward — to the benefit of all.”
Price also puts his debate and mediation skills to good use, handling administrative hearings for city employees. “What I’m often doing is putting out res, handling complaints,” he said. “I look for answers and try to stop a molehill from becoming a mountain.”
As the mayor’s advisor and now as leader of the Chamber’s board, Price has big plans and a bold vision for his city, and he thinks we’re headed in the right direction. “Our current business climate is already disproving the stereotype this city has been under,” he said, “and I want to get the black community even more involved in the Chamber. I want them to know that they shouldn't sit outside. Bring your questions inside. Get a seat at the table and discuss your ideas.”
In his mind, it all boils down to everyone in the city and region working together toward a common goal: an improved quality of life. “As Chairman, I want to open this city up so that we all enjoy the fruits of our labors together. I believe in community the way Dr. King talked about it. I do believe the tent is large enough for all.”
A CAREER BUILT on a Calling
2018 Chamber Chairman Judge Charles Price had a long and storied career as both a prosecutor and a judge, one defined by his willingness to often tackle difficult cases, make hard decisions and do it all with kindness. Here are a few highlights:
- He was Montgomery’s first black city judge.
- He prosecuted “Peter Rabbit,” an African-American gang member who killed an off-duty police officer in Montgomery.
- In 1997, he was honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for “his devotion to the principles of the American Constitution” that compelled him to rule against Judge Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. He is only the second Alabama citizen to earn the honor.
- He presided over the Torrey McNabb case and handed down a capital punishment sentence for McNabb, who killed a police officer in 1997. “Sometimes, it is appropriate, and it was in this case,” Price said.
- In 2009, the Montgomery County Courthouse was renamed Montgomery County Courthouse, Phelps-Price Justice Center in memory of Judge Phelps and in honor of Judge Price.
- He was appointed to the Alabama Ethics Commission in 2016; his term ends in 2020.
The CHAIRMAN’S FOCUS
While Judge Price has a few projects particularly close to his heart, he stressed that part of what makes the Chamber so effective is having many partners rallied around one vision and following a plan. And that plan is the Imagine a Greater Montgomery strategy. “Having consistent goals that everyone is bought into is important,” said Price. Each year, the Chamber takes stock of performance against the Imagine plan, and then makes adjustments as needed to capitalize on new opportunities. “Every year, a new implementation plan is developed that keeps our leadership focused on what’s important and defines what success looks like,” said Price.
JUDGE PRICE’S 2018 CHAMBER PRIORITIES:
Quality Public Schools: “The state intervention has opened up new opportunities to change out school system in Montgomery. As a community, we should expect no less than having every school be a quality choice for every child.”
Increased Air Service & Passenger Traffic at MGM Regional Airport: “We have a new flight direct to Reagan National in DC starting in June. That is huge for Montgomery. We’ve got to make sure it’s successful and keep growing our airport. We’ve got to capture passengers back from Birmingham and Atlanta, and we’ve got to understand that we must use our airport or be in jeopardy of losing it.”
Small & Minority Business Development: “The Chamber has counseled, mentored or trained more than 14,000 entrepreneurs since 2010. That’s impressive. But we can do more. We’ve got to reach out in new ways to meet our small and minority businesses where they are and work harder to connect them to the resources they need to prosper.”
TechMGM & the innovation District: “We have major projects in play and partners working to leverage Montgomery’s unique technology, military, Department of Defense, government and business assets. I expect some very exciting developments in innovation and technology this year that will fuel Montgomery’s economy and transform the image of our city and region."