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Elbert Parr Tuttle

Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Anne Emanuel

Publication Year: 2011

This is the first—and the only authorized—biography of Elbert Parr Tuttle (1897–1996), the judge who led the federal court with jurisdiction over most of the Deep South through the most tumultuous years of the civil rights revolution. By the time Tuttle became chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he had already led an exceptional life. He had cofounded a prestigious law firm, earned a Purple Heart in the battle for Okinawa in World War II, and led Republican Party efforts in the early 1950s to establish a viable presence in the South. But it was the inter­section of Tuttle’s judicial career with the civil rights movement that thrust him onto history’s stage.

When Tuttle assumed the mantle of chief judge in 1960, six years had passed since Brown v. Board of Education had been decided but little had changed for black southerners. In landmark cases relating to voter registration, school desegregation, access to public transportation, and other basic civil liberties, Tuttle’s determination to render justice and his swift, decisive rulings neutralized the delaying tactics of diehard segregationists—including voter registrars, school board members, and governors—who were determined to preserve Jim Crow laws throughout the South.

Author Anne Emanuel maintains that without the support of the federal courts of the Fifth Circuit, the promise of Brown might have gone unrealized. Moreover, without the leadership of Elbert Tuttle and the moral authority he commanded, the courts of the Fifth Circuit might not have met the challenge.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Studies in the Legal History of the South


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

The hard truth of our cultural and constitutional history is that nowhere was it written that the civil rights revolution led by Martin Luther King Jr. would succeed. The movement cost its members more sacrifice and caused more terror than we care to remember. Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence held long enough and firmly enough to give the movement a moral ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

A work this long in the making accumulates more indebtedness than can be repaid, except, perhaps, in spirit. I owe large debts of gratitude for unstinting practical and moral support to my colleagues at Georgia State University College of Law and especially to Deans Marjorie Girth, Janice Griffith, and Steven Kaminshine; to my exceptional administrative assistant ...

A Note on Sources

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pp. xix-xx

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1. The Legal Lynching of John Downer

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pp. 1-7

“Well, personally and frankly I think the boy with her screwed her.”1 In 1932 this blunt assessment brought a Macon, Georgia, federal courtroom to a stunned silence. Marion Williamson, a captain in the Georgia National Guard and a Decatur attorney, sat in the witness chair. He had spoken the unspeakable truth, and he had spoken it under oath. It would, as it turned out ...

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2. The Great Migration

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pp. 8-13

Elbert Parr Tuttle could trace his family line back ten generations, to April 1635, when the Planter left Gravesend, England, bound for Boston. On board were 117 passengers, including twenty-six-year-old William Tuttle, his twenty-three-year-old wife, Elizabeth, and their three small children: John, who was three and a half; Anne, who was two; and Thomas, who was ...

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3. Life Was a Breeze

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pp. 14-25

The physical isolation of the Hawaiian Islands, the way their small surfaces sit surrounded by the vast ocean, made young Elbert Tuttle acutely aware of geography. Having the deposed queen of Hawaii, a woman of color, live around the corner made him acutely aware of politics.1 When the Tuttles arrived on Oahu, the public schools educated mostly Hawaiian children and the children of Asian laborers. For their sons, Guy ...

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4. College Years

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pp. 26-30

The first year at Cornell—and for that matter every year at Cornell—was a busy one for Elbert. When he graduated four years later, his list of activities would take more than seven lines of fine type in a class where most lists ran two or three lines and only a couple required six. One classmate, Bill Ellis, vividly remembered seeing Elbert for the first time. Early in their freshmen ...

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5. Sara Sutherland

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pp. 31-40

The summer of 1917, following their junior year, Malcolm and Elbert couldn’t afford the cost of returning to Hawaii. When Elbert’s fraternity brother Strawn Perry invited him to spend the summer with Strawn’s family in Jacksonville, Florida, Elbert accepted gratefully. Strawn’s father, the president of the Florida National Bank, arranged summer jobs for both ...

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6. Founding a Law Firm and Raising a Family

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pp. 41-51

Sara and the baby left for Atlanta on May 20, 1923. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Sara remembered, “but we had youth and confidence and love and Elbert had lots of ability, so we knew life would be good to us.” They left snow on the ground in Ithaca and arrived at a city in bloom. Elbert followed in early June, arriving just in time to take the ...

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7. Gearing Up for War

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pp. 52-59

By the summer of 1941, Elbert and his best friend, Sara’s cousin Leckie Mattox, were already on active duty. Their Georgia National Guard infantry regiment was called up in September 1940. Shortly thereafter it was converted to a field artillery regiment and on February 28, 1941, posted to Fort Blanding, just south of Jacksonville, Florida. Before joining his regiment ...

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8. The War Years

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pp. 60-77

In late 1941 army surveyors scouting for locations for a post large enough to train multiple infantry divisions checked out a Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Blackstone, a small town in south-central Virginia. It did not take them long to realize they had found a site—Camp Pickett was all but perfect. It had enough land and enough water, and it connected by rail ...

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9. Building a Republican Party in Georgia

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pp. 78-85

When Elbert and Sara Tuttle moved to Atlanta in 1923, he was only twenty-six and had not yet affiliated himself with any political party. In Hawaii, where “a high sugar tariff meant prosperity for the Hawaiian sugar industry,” his parents had been Republicans. Upon arriving in Georgia, Tuttle noticed a singular irony. “I found that whereas I had left a place where all ...

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10. The 1952 Republican National Convention

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pp. 86-99

In the fall of 1951, the big question was whether Dwight D. Eisenhower would accept a Republican nomination. The general remained above the fray. If he ran, he would be challenging Robert Taft, who had lost the nomination to Dewey in 1948. Dewey had suffered a surprising, devastating loss to Harry Truman. Now, four years later, Taft’s position was strong. The son ...

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11. The Washington Years

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pp. 100-116

Tuttle campaigned vigorously for Eisenhower in Georgia, but, to no one’s surprise, Adlai Stevenson carried the state. Ike carried the country, however, and he knew he owed his victory in no small part to the southern Republican strategists who had helped him win the nomination. Once elected, Eisenhower delegated the selection of most of his cabinet to his ...

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12. The Great Writ

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pp. 117-127

Tuttle’s confirmation hearings were typical of the times. Seats on the circuit courts of appeals were understood to “belong” to certain states. If that state’s senators belonged to the president’s party, they would be consulted about appointments and their preferences weighted heavily. If they belonged to the opposition party, civility indicated that their opinion be formally ...

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13. Forming the Historic Fifth Circuit: Nine Men

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pp. 128-152

When Elbert Tuttle returned to Atlanta to assume his seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he expected to serve out his years in peace and quiet. The Fifth Circuit had long been one of the busiest federal circuits in the nation. The work of the judges was steady, but it was not heavy, and it was carried out at the judge’s pace in the isolation of ...

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14. Justice Is Never Simple: Brown I and II

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pp. 153-167

Despite all of his years in Georgia and despite his considerable political insight, Elbert Tuttle badly misread the effect that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education would have. When he casually told a friend, “they’ll fall in line,” meaning the southern states would accept the mandate laid down by the court, he meant it.1 In later years, he understood ...

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15. From Plessy to Brown to Buses

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pp. 168-173

On May 17, 1954, many observers thought that the decision in Brown I sounded the death knell of Jim Crow segregation. As it would turn out, they were correct, but Brown itself did not make that clear. Just as Charles Hamilton Houston and his colleagues at the NAACP had carefully honed in on education as the area where separate but equal was least defensible ...

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16. The Desegregation of the University of Georgia

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pp. 174-193

Richard Rives was sworn in as chief judge of the Fifth Circuit in 1959 at the age of sixty-four. A year later, he resigned, and Tuttle took his place. Although tradition indicated that he would serve until he reached the age of seventy, Rives explained that he had found the administrative work burdensome, more so because his wife suffered from poor health. Years later ...

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17. The Costs of Conscience

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pp. 193-202

When Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes registered for classes at the University of Georgia in 1961, Brown had been on the books for more than six years. Precious little had changed in three key areas of civic life— education, public accommodations, and voting—but the pace was quickening. As prevalent as civil rights litigation was, it represented only a small ...

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18. Oxford, Mississippi: The Battleground

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pp. 203-217

On January 20, 1961, the day after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president, James Meredith wrote the registrar of the University of Mississippi, requesting an application, a copy of the catalog, and “any other information that might be helpful to me.”1 On January 26 he mailed his completed application. A twenty-seven-year-old native of Kosciusko, Mississippi, Meredith ...

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19. The Fight for the Right to Vote

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pp. 218-234

Late in his life, when Elbert Tuttle was asked to name the most significant cases he had decided, two always made the list: Holmes v. Danner, in which he ordered the desegregation of the University of Georgia, and the Birmingham schoolchildren case. They had two great themes in common: civil rights and access to education. But those were not the only reasons ...

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20. But for Birmingham

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pp. 235-252

Late in his life, when Elbert Tuttle was asked to name the most significant cases he had decided, two always made the list: Holmes v. Danner, in which he ordered the desegregation of the University of Georgia, and the Birmingham schoolchildren case. They had two great themes in common: civil rights and access to education. But those were not the only reasons ...

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21. The Houston Conference

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pp. 253-266

On Tuttle’s court, the Fifth Circuit, Birmingham festered. Earlier in the week, Tuttle had sent all members of the court a letter enclosing the agenda for the judicial council meeting scheduled for May 29. Judge Griffin Bell received his copy on the morning of May 23, the day after Tuttle’s ruling in the Birmingham school case. Later that day Bell sent his colleagues an eight-page letter in which he argued that Tuttle was wrong ...

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22. Moving On

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pp. 267-273

If Senator Eastland thought his charge of court packing would intimidate Elbert Tuttle, he quickly learned that he was wrong. The man who survived hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific theater was not about to be intimidated by the sound and fury of his detractors, even when they included a U. S. senator. Tuttle, who had already mapped the way with his path-breaking ...

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23. The City Almost Too Busy to Hate

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pp. 274-281

Although Tuttle joined the Fifth Circuit in 1954, he had carried a low profile until late in 1960, when, almost simultaneously, he became chief judge and he entered the order that desegregated the University of Georgia. Then he became the iconic activist judge. Tempers ran hot, and he, along with his colleagues, was the target of increasing animosity over the next several ...

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24. Family and Friends

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pp. 282-291

As the chief judge of the Fifth Circuit from 1960 to 1967, as the leader of a court that took the constitutional rights of black Americans seriously and insisted they be recognized, Tuttle was something of a pariah. Still, as he was quick to point out, he had it comparatively easy. It helped that Atlanta was perhaps the most progressive city in the Deep South, and it helped ...

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25. A Jurisprudence of Justice

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pp. 292-314

Judges sit to decide cases, and for more than four decades on the bench, that is what Elbert Tuttle did. He published more than twenty-three hundred opinions during his tenure on the court; the overwhelming majority carefully applied precedent to precise facts and resolved legal disputes in matters critical to the parties but not of general public interest. He rarely ...

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26. Hail to the Chief—and Farewell

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pp. 315-325

On July 17, 1967, Elbert Tuttle turned seventy and stepped down as chief judge of the Fifth Circuit. His predecessor in office, Judge Hutcheson, had served as chief until he was eighty, but a federal statute enacted in 1958 required chief judges to relinquish the office at seventy.1 Will Sparks, an assistant to Lyndon Johnson, sent the president a note: “We do not ordinarily ...

APPENDIX 1. Law Clerks to Judge Tuttle

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pp. 327-328

APPENDIX 2. Military Honors

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pp. 329-330

APPENDIX 3. Awards and Honors

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pp. 331


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pp. 333-374


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pp. 375-399

E-ISBN-13: 9780820341798
E-ISBN-10: 0820341797
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820339474
Print-ISBN-10: 0820339474

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 51 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Studies in the Legal History of the South