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Champion of Civil Rights

Judge John Minor Wisdom

Joel William Friedman

Publication Year: 2009

One of the least publicly recognized heroes of the civil rights movement in the United States, John Minor Wisdom served as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit from 1957 until his death in 1999 and wrote many of the landmark decisions instrumental in desegregating the American South. In this revealing biography, law professor Joel William Friedman explores Judge Wisdom's substantial legal contributions and political work at a critical time in the history of the South. In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Wisdom to the Fifth Circuit, which included some of the most deeply segregated southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. In the tumultuous two decades following its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court issued only a few civil rights decisions, preferring instead to affirm Fifth Circuit Court opinions or let them stand without hearing an appeal. Judge Wisdom, therefore, authored many of the decisions that transformed the South and broke down barriers of all kinds for African Americans, including the desegregation of public schools. In preparing this first full-length biography of Judge Wisdom, Friedman had unrestricted access to Wisdom's voluminous repository of personal and professional papers. In addition, he draws on personal interviews with law clerks who served under Judge Wisdom, resulting in a unique, behind-the-scenes account of some of the nation's most important legal decisions: the admission of the first black student to the University of Mississippi, the initiation of contempt proceedings against Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, and the destruction of obstacles that had previously kept black Americans from voting. Friedman also explores Wisdom's political life prior to joining the federal bench, including his pivotal role in resurrecting the Louisiana Republican Party and in securing the Republican presidential nomination for Eisenhower. A compelling account of how a child of privilege from one of America's most socially and racially stratified cities came to serve as the driving force behind the legal effort to end segregation, Champion of Civil Rights offers judicial biography at its best.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This is a book about Wisdom. And about wisdom. And also about courage, intellectual rigor, and honesty, and about one man’s lifelong commitment to fairness. The chronicle of the civil rights movement in the United States...

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1. A Privileged Son of the South

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pp. 1-8

Wisdom. Could any judge hope for a more felicitous patronymic? Even more than Learned Hand, this name appears to predestine its owner for the contemplative, justice-dispensing life of a jurist. Yet aside from his surname, little in John Minor Wisdom’s background...

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2. From Birth to Bonnie to the Branch, 1905–1946

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pp. 9-29

For the first fourteen years of his life, John Minor Wisdom lived in a roomy, three-story wood-frame house on Calhoun Street. Only a block and a half off one of New Orleans’ most fashionable arteries, mansion-lined St. Charles Avenue, the Wisdom home...

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3. At the Bar, 1948–1953

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pp. 30-42

After nearly two decades of representing a variety of business and other clients, the firm of Wisdom & Stone was retained by a local super market owner whose fight against the price-fixing practices employed by national liquor distributors would...

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4. Battling the Bosses: Creating a Two-Party System in Louisiana

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pp. 43-62

The decision to join or otherwise identify with a political party can be influenced by any of a multitude of factors. Some individuals become Democrats or Republicans simply because their parents are members of that party, or because they grew up in an environment...

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5. The 1952 Convention: Victories for Eisenhower and a Two-Party System in Louisiana

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pp. 63-88

At the same time that John Minor Wisdom was struggling to unseat John E. Jackson and rebuild Louisiana’s Republican Party, another southern attorney, Elbert Parr Tuttle of Atlanta, was spearheading a movement to reform and broaden the base of the Republican...

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6. Assuming the Bench: Nomination and Confirmation

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pp. 89-111

With an incumbent President Dwight D. Eisenhower appreciative of the role John Minor Wisdom had played in helping secure both his presidential nomination and, to a lesser degree, his election victory in 1952, and with friends and close working associates...

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7. The Fifth Circuit’s Emerging Intellectual Leader, 1957–1966

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pp. 112-146

In 1950, two African Americans, Clifton Alton Poret and Edgar Labat, the latter a hospital orderly with no prior arrest record, were apprehended and charged with rape. Nearly two years after the incident, these two defendants asked the trial judge to dismiss the...

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8. Showdown in Mississippi: Standing Up for James Meredith and to Ross Barnett

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pp. 147-178

Located at mile marker 160 on the Natchez Trace amid central Mississippi farmlands, the city of Kosciusko is best known for its pure drinking water. It also, however, is the birthplace of the son of a cotton and corn farmer and grandson of a slave whose persistent...

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9. The First Step in Desegregating the South: Enforcing Brown’s Mandate in Louisiana

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pp. 179-199

On a warm, late spring evening, John and Bonnie Wisdom celebrated his forty-ninth birthday with a dinner party at their Garden District home. Along with their guests, the Wisdoms could not have imagined the greater significance of this day in reshaping...

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10. Implementing Brown throughout the Nation

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pp. 200-245

If John Minor Wisdom’s opinion in Bush constituted the initial blueprint for the demolition of racially segregated public education in Louisiana, his pair of opinions in...

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11. Internal Discord Threatens the Court

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pp. 246-270

Not every member of the Fifth Circuit shared the zeal with which John Minor Wisdom and some of his colleagues strove to combat and overcome the unwavering obstructionist tactics employed by state officials and federal trial judges hell-bent on thwarting the...

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12. Honoring the Promise of the Fifteenth Amendment: The Voting Rights Cases

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pp. 271-302

On March 30, 1870, nearly five years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was declared to be ratified by the legislatures of twenty-nine of the thirty-seven states.1 For the first time in American history, the federal...

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13. A Vigilant Steward of Fairness

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pp. 303-317

John Minor Wisdom’s reputation as a resolute defender and protector of civil rights is most commonly, and justifiably, linked to his decisions in school desegregation and voting rights cases. But his civil rights legacy manifestly is not limited to those high-profile, and...

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14. The Civil Rights Struggles of the 1970s and 1980s: Equal Opportunity in Employment

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pp. 318-334

Just as school desegregation and voting rights cases became the focal point for civil rights litigation in the mid-1960s, Congress’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act brought employment discrimination claims to the forefront of the litigation universe in the early...

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15. The Unsuccessful Campaign to Save the Fifth Circuit

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pp. 335-368

In 1869, Congress enacted the first of what would become a series of laws governing the retirement of federal judges. A half-century later, it established the concept of “senior status,” which enables a federal district or circuit judge to retire from...

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Epilogue: Honoring the Legacy

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pp. 369-379

As testament to John Minor Wisdom’s remarkable and varied contributions to American society, those accomplished both in the political sphere and in the juridical arena, he received countless awards and honors from a wide array of admiring and grateful...


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pp. 381-401

E-ISBN-13: 9780807134825
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807133842

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Southern Biography Series