February 05, 2019

Judicial Courage, Judicial Heroes, and the Civil Rights Movement

By Alyssa Cochran

When we hear the names of iconic judges, such as Judge Minor Wisdom or Judge Elbert Tuttle, our minds jump to thoughts of greatness, admiration, and courage. During the 1950s through the 1970s, a critical period of the civil rights movement, a handful of judges courageously sided with equal justice and the rule of law over racist customs and cultural norms. Panelist, Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, Judge Myron H. Thompson, and Anna M. Manasco, Ph.D., J.D., of Bradley, Arant, Boult, Cummings, LLP, led by moderator Judge Jill A. Pryor, provided insight into the life and legacy of judicial heroes in the civil rights movement. While these judges are revered for their greatness today, the panelists recounted the social ostracism and danger these judges faced at the time, when they were making widely unpopular decisions. In light of these difficulties, one theme I drew from the panel’s conversation is, “What can we, as members of the legal community, learn from the judges whose decisions changed the course of civil rights in America?”  

To better understand the lessons we can learn from judges in the civil rights movement, Judge Miller explained the larger social and legal context in which these decisions were made. While Judge Wisdom, Judge Tuttle, Judge Richard Rives, and Judge John Robert Brown played a critical role in advancing civil rights, Judge Miller explained that these judges were part of a much longer tradition of civil rights. From Judge Miller’s perspective, the civil rights movement began with abolishing slavery, and from that point progressed with legislation that slowly recognized equality for African Americans. For example, the 1866 Civil Rights Act (which was enacted over the veto of President Andrew Johnson), recognized all persons born in the United States as citizens, regardless of race, color, or previous condition. But obtaining equality proved more challenging than drafting legislation that promised such a change.

Due to actions of groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), who continued to terrorize African Americans to prevent the practical application of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, in 1870 and 1871, Congress passed several Enforcement Acts. These Acts, which were intended to combat the activities of the KKK, allowed the President to use military force to protect African Americans and aided in enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. The list of legislative attempts to achieve equality goes on and on, but Judge Miller’s point was clear, before the twentieth century, working towards equality and repudiating white supremacy was deeply entrenched in this country’s history.

Yet, over seventy years later, when Judges Wisdom, Tuttle, Brown and Rives became involved, racism remained engrained in the fabric of every-day society. When speaking of these judges—and others—the panelists each noted the courage it took to rule in favor of equality and to uphold the rule of law in light of inevitable social ostracism. As Judge Thompson recalled, acquiescence with social customs of white supremacy and segregation was not merely expected, but mandated by an atmosphere of terror imposed by the threat of lynching, beatings and bombings. Yet, each of these judges, even with greatly differing backgrounds, had a common interest—enforcing the rule of law, regardless of the expense to themselves.

For example, Judge Thompson explained, that Judge Rives grew up in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the white aristocracy of the south. Yet, when he became a judge, his rulings in favor of African Americans—like Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956), which ended segregated busing in Montgomery—caused Judge Rives to lose his previous social status. He was rejected by the community, and one article stated Judge Rives’s strong rulings in favor of African Americans made him “a pariah among white segregationists.” As Judge Miller noted, at a time when society functioned under a series of informal agreements and passive acquiescence to injustice, breaking with these unspoken agreements was guaranteed to lead to social exclusion. For Judge Rives, and many others, this is exactly what occurred.

Next, Ms. Manasco depicted the life experiences of Judge Tuttle, which differed greatly from Judge Rives. Judge Tuttle did not grow up in the South, and his multi-cultural background more clearly laid the groundwork for his desire to combat injustice. Ms. Manasco explained, before being appointed to the bench, Judge Tuttle spent much of his childhood living in Hawaii, where he attended a racially diverse school. Later in life, when serving in the National Guard, he was charged with dispersing angry mobs set out to lynch African Americans. After facing injustice first-hand, these experiences shaped his judicial decision-making and developed his courage to continue fighting for equality on the bench. For example, Judge Tuttle ruled in favor of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, when he upheld their right to conduct civil rights meetings and demonstrations in Albany, Georgia. Judge Tuttle also ruled James Meredith, an African American, could be admitted to the University of Mississippi.

The panelists also discussed district court judges who enforced desegregation and ruled in favor of African Americans, despite similar harsh public disapproval. For example, Judge Frank M. Johnson, as a district court judge, later appointed to the Fifth Circuit, continuously ruled in favor of widespread desegregation. Although faced with arguments that Brown v. The Board of Education was limited to desegregating public schools, Judge Johnson disagreed. Judge Johnson ruled in favor of desegregating transportation and swimming pools, among many other critical decisions that gave momentum to the fight for civil rights. 

For those district court judges who took the opposite approach and continued to ignore rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Fifth Circuit, extreme measures were taken to obtain compliance. The Panelists explained, some Fifth Circuit Judges would personally visit district court judges to ensure the desegregation orders mandated by the Fifth Circuit were signed. Moreover, for a period of time, the Fifth Circuit modified their own standard of review. Instead of leaving fact-finding to the district court judges, concerns about bias, partiality, or plain racism amongst the judiciary, caused the Fifth Circuit to decide that all findings of fact would be reviewed de novo.

Unquestionably, the “Fifth Circuit Four” (Judges Wisdom, Tuttle, Brown and Rives), among others, were instrumental in the advancement of civil rights for African Americans. But their greatness should not merely be admired, it should be emulated. When Judge Miller introduced the topic of judicial heroes during the civil rights movement by explaining the historical context in which these decisions were being made, he made clear that the progress made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, was only one chapter in a much larger story. Today, each of us is living another chapter of the civil rights story and there is still much progress to be made.

Thus, in answering the questions, “What can we learn from these judicial heroes and how can we ensure that our chapter of the civil rights story is one in which our country moves closer to equality,” the panelists all repeated the same traits: courage, selflessness, and an unwavering commitment to justice and the rule of law. Interestingly, the traits were not power, money, or even brilliance, but traits that each of us is able to project, regardless of our different circumstances and backgrounds.

While it may be easy to think, even with these traits, “I am not going to have the kind of impact that a circuit or district court judge can have.” The bigger lesson to be drawn from this panel discussion was not that one must be a judge to have an impact. Rather, the panel counseled that each of us, in our own lives and in the practice of law, have an obligation to act with courage in upholding and applying the rule of law equally.

To meet this obligation, we should focus on our daily acts and decisions. In a five minute Ted Talk, Drew Dudley, sums up a similar concept. To explain how leadership can be something simple and attainable, Dudley cautions, “As long as we treat leadership as something bigger than us, and make it about changing the entire world, we give ourselves an excuse to not expect it every day from ourselves and from each other.” Dudley emphasizes instead that leadership is about the small acts and decisions we make in our day-to-day lives, and he believes those small acts can have a dramatic impact on someone’s life. Thus, if we think about achieving greater change by a series of small acts, see it as getting as many people as possible to do the right thing each day, rather than thinking of it as one person who is simply destined to change the world, a bigger change can happen.

Emphasizing themes similar to this panel discussion, Dudley’s brief Ted Talk resonates deeply with what can be learned from judicial heroes in the civil rights movement. The panelists each explained the harm caused by passive acquiescence to racism and inequality. Undoubtedly, the opportunity to acquiesce to injustice continues to arise in obvious and subtle ways in our daily lives, but we can each choose to be courageous and selfless in those moments. We can choose to emulate the traits of judicial heroes from the past, and as attorneys, we should expect this from ourselves and those around us.

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    Alyssa Cochran

    Alyssa Cochran currently works in the appellate department at Kightlinger & Gray, LLP. Prior to joining Kightlinger & Gray, Alyssa spent two years clerking at the Indiana Supreme Court. She obtained her J.D. from Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and remains an active member of the Indiana State Bar Association Appellate Practice Section by serving on the council.