White Southerner Helped Spearhead Civil Rights Battle From the Bench


It was an unlikely match--a black Baptist minister and the white federal judges of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals--but working together they changed the nation.

In the 1960s, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was marshaling marchers and forcing the nation to reckon with the rights of its black citizens, Judge John Minor Wisdom and his fellow federal judges forced the Deep South to abolish its segregated society.

"I think the 5th Circuit prevented a second civil war," Wisdom said. "If we hadn't made people obey the laws of this country, I think there would have been a lot more people killed, a lot more people hurt. I think there would have been another war here."

They were dubbed "The Four" by an outraged fellow judge who said they had destroyed the Old South. Elbert Tuttle of Atlanta, John Brown of Houston, Richard Rives of Montgomery, Ala., and Wisdom of New Orleans, forced the states that had made up the Confederacy to change everything from their schools to their thinking. Of the four, only Tuttle and Wisdom are still living.

Wisdom was known as the scholar, a historian and lover of English literature who used his brilliance and eloquence to shape many of the rulings.

Wisdom, 87, has slowed with the years--wispy gray hair frames his large head and he walks with a cane, slowed by pain in his legs. But his bushy eyebrows still move expressively and his eyes still gleam with humor.

He still puts in a full day in his office and hears cases regularly around the country, although he has been a senior judge--a form of semi-retirement--since 1977.

It has been nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court declared that "separate but equal" public schools violated the guarantees of the 14th Amendment and ordered school boards to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."

Less than three months later, Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a cheering audience in Senatobia, Miss., that not only were they not required to follow the law, they were obligated to defy it.

In that atmosphere, the 5th Circuit judges fleshed out the Supreme Court's mandate and expanded it beyond education. They issued the landmark decisions that struck down the barriers of discrimination in voting, jury selection and employment.

Four landmark decisions, written by Wisdom in 1965-67, changed the plodding pace of Southern school boards into a single system that--as he put it--consisted of "not white or Negro schools--just schools."

Starting in December, 1965, and working for a full year, Wisdom boldly spelled out what the Supreme Court's 1954 decision meant. In what he considers his most important opinion, Wisdom detailed how school desegregation should be accomplished. He said schools had an affirmative duty to develop a plan that works to undo the effects of past discrimination.

"My feeling was that we'd never get started desegregating schools unless we revised the system, because that's where the problem was," Wisdom said.

So sweeping was the mandate of his ruling that by the early 1970s the South had surpassed the North in integrating school systems.

Wisdom was an unlikely candidate for a civil rights hero.

A member of New Orleans' aristocracy, his father was a pallbearer for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a member of the White League that fought to overthrow the integrated city government established during Reconstruction.

"I'm sure people were surprised when I ruled as I did," Wisdom said. "I'm sure Sen. Eastland was surprised on many occasions."

A staunch Republican, Wisdom blamed much of the South's failure to progress on the Democratic Party's longtime control of Southern government.

"I felt the South had to move away from a one-party system," Wisdom said. "That's what allowed so many demagogues to flourish here. I think that belief led to my feelings that we had to move away from our old racial beliefs. That and the fact you could so plainly see it wasn't right. It was unconstitutional."

People sent him hate mail, threw rattlesnakes on his lawn and poisoned his dogs. But Wisdom said he got off luckier than other federal judges who forced compliance with civil rights laws.

Someone bombed the house of the mother of Florida Judge Frank Johnson. Others dumped garbage on the grave of Rives' only son and painted the tombstone red.

"It was a fearsome time," Wisdom said. "Sometimes it amazes me at how far we've come. When I look at our schools, at our Legislature, and our city, I'm amazed at what we've done."

Wisdom still supports affirmative action and busing, and believes the country is making progress. He takes a quiet pride in it.

"I don't consider myself a hero," Wisdom said. "I think I worked with heroes. Martin Luther King was a real force in the civil rights movement, but so was the 5th Circuit."

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