Production Team: A
Interview Date: November 2, 1985
Interview Place: New York City, New York
Camera Rolls: 207-211; 140-145
Sound Rolls: 1153-1154; 1118-1120
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Constance Baker Motley, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on DATE?, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Constance Baker Motley. 1 3 c
NEW YORK CITY, TEAM A, SR 1153, CR 207, CHIEF JUDGE MOTLEY.
THE FIRST QUESTION IS, WE'RE LOOKING FOR YOU TO GIVE US AN IDEA OF THE CLIMATE IN WHICH THE BROWN CASES WERE FOUGHT, THE INFLUENCE OF SUCH FACTORS AS THE RETURNING VETERENS FROM WWII MIGRATION OF BLACKS TO THE CITIES AND TO THE NORTH, THOSE SORTS OF THINGS.
Well, of course the Brown case came after World War II, although the idea for it I think, long preceded that, the NAACP had set up its legal arm in 1939 and when World War II came along in 1941, plans for preceding with a massive legal effort against segregation took a back seat so to speak, in favor of aiding black servicemen, who had sought the aid of the NAACP in connection with courts martial. And of course, once the war was over and the issue of the treatment of black servicemen loomed large in the minds of all Americans, this whole effort to outlaw segregation in the armed forces and in American society generally gathered a great deal of momentum and of course culminated in the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case.
YOU SAID SOMETHING ABOUT THE—YOU MENTIONED IN PASSING—WAS THE RETURNING VETERENS, THE TREATMENT OF THEM, I WONDER IF YOU COULD JUST TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THEM.
During the war?
THE RETURNING VETERANS, THERE ARE STORIES OF HARASSMENT AND ATTACKS ON THEM. I THINK THE NAACP WAS INVOLVED IN THOSE CASES, WERE THEY NOT?
Well, not as much as they were in the actual courts martial, because when I first went to work there in the summer of ‘44, we had courts martial records stacked to the ceiling in a room this size that had to be reviewed and appeals taken to military review boards in Washington, and so our legal effort was concentrated in that area of trying to get their sentences reduced if not the entire conviction reversed.
AND THIS TREATMENT YOU THINK AFFECTED THE, THE COUNTRY YOU'RE SAYING? I JUST WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT I'VE GOTTEN THIS STRAIGHT, THAT THE TREATMENT OF THE BLACK VETERENS YOU THINK WAS A GENERAL EFFECT.
It pushed the whole question to the fore—that is the whole question of racial segregation—because here we were as a nation involved in a war to make the world safe for democracy and of course one of the embarrassing features of our effort was that blacks were segregated in our armed forces, and they resented it and here we were trying to represent ourselves to the world as a democratic nation. And so the issue of segregation loomed large during the war and the war effort. And the NAACP's membership almost doubled during that period from membership applications from black servicemen who recognized that the NAACP was the only organization that they could turn to for assistance with what they believed to be a very pressing problem for them. And that is that they received disproportionately sentences for any crime which they committed than white servicemen. And they felt this was a tremendous grievance that something had to be done about it.
STOP. IF YOU COULD GIVE US THIS LAYMAN'S EXPLANATION OF THE MEANING OF THE PLESSY STANDARD…
You know, right after the Civil War, the Reconstruction Congress set about enacting laws which would guarantee to the former slaves the same rights which white citizens enjoyed. However the south resisted any such laws and in the election of 1876 when there was an opportunity for the south to make a deal, they did make a deal which resulted in the federal government withdrawing its support in the rights of blacks: more specifically, withdrawing federal troops from the south. These troops were there to protect blacks from violence by whites. And to make sure that they had the right to vote and the same rights as white citizens. And of course this went on and on as southern resistance grew after the Civil War to equality for blacks. Finally by 1896, when the case reached the Supreme Court involving southern treatment of blacks, the Supreme Court adopted the southern view of what ought to be and that was that sure the Constitution now provided for equality, but we could provide equality by having blacks in separate railroad cars for example. Or separate schools or separate recreation facilities. And the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on that southern view of how the 14th Amendment ought to operate. And that continued of course until the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case, which said, "No, you can't have separate schools for black and white children and expect black children to get the same kind of education as whites."
DO YOU THINK THAT IT WAS UNDERSTOOD THAT SEPERATE BUT EQUAL WAS NEVER GOING TO BE EQUAL, EVEN AT THE TIME THAT IT WAS SET UP?
Well, I think that it was generally known that that was not as a practical matter, what was happening…
IN CORPORATE QUESTIONS…
At the time that the Supreme Court dealt with the question of whether separate facilities for blacks would meet the requirements of the 14th Amendment, generally throughout the country facilities provided for blacks were not equal to those provided for whites. And the Supreme Court of course, simply proceeded on the premise that they were, and simply ruled on the legal proposition that you could have equality for blacks even though they were required to accommodate themselves in separate facilities. But the reality of course, was that blacks had inferior facilities in every aspect in which segregation was enforced.
WE'RE ASKING YOU TO TALK ABOUT THE BROWN CASE AS BEING A CHANGEOVER FROM THE PREVIOUS CASE.
Of course, prior to the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had devoted its efforts to trying to remedy the situation with respect to unequal facilities for blacks within the context of the doctrine of separate but equal itself. For example, they brought a number of cases, seeking to equalize the salaries of black teachers. They also brought cases which were directed at the graduate school level because no separate facility had been provided for blacks at that level, So they conceived that that would be very easy legally to accomplish since the state had not provided separate facilities for blacks, for example in the Gaines case in Missouri and, and the Donald Murray case in Maryland. The Brown case itself, however, was a departure from that strategy and was a frontal attack on segregation itself as being violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Now once the Supreme Court decided the case of Plessy against Ferguson which approved of separate facilities for blacks as meeting the requirements of the 14th Amendment that became the law of the land and so the NAACP legal defense and educational fund when it started out in the early ‘40s—the middle ‘40s—with its program of attacking segregation and education directed its efforts toward the graduate school level, where the state had failed to provide any facility for black students at all and that kept them within the framework of separate but equal and it was not a frontal attack on the whole concept of segregation. However after winning one or two cases at that level which opened the graduate schools, that is law schools for example to blacks the strategy changed as result of that success and the strategy for attacking segregation itself was developed and culminated in the supreme courts decision in the Brown case.
CAMERA ROLL 208.
HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK WAS THE UNANIMITY OF THE COURT'S DECISION IN THE BROWN CASE AND HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S ROLE WAS—OR WARREN'S ROLE WAS—IN MOLDING THAT?
I think that it was very important for the successful implementation of the Brown decision that the decision was unanimous and I think the credit for that goes to Earl Warren who was the Chief Justice of the United States at that time. I think that he perceived that there would be tremendous resistance to the supreme court decision if it was five to four for example that this would encourage the opponents of desegregation to try over and over again to get the court to hear the case again and probably switch that vote which gave the decision to blacks. And so when the decision was unanimous that was a statement, a really political statement frankly, that the national policy of this country is integration, of blacks into the mainstream of American life. So it was crucial to its implementation that that decision be unanimous.
WHAT WOULD YOU SINGLE OUT AS THE GREATEST IMPACT OF THE BROWN DECISION ITSELF?
Well, I think in retrospect the impact was largely psychological. As a practical matter, you know the implementation of Brown ran into the hard realities of life in major urban centers where there are large segregated housing areas in which blacks lived, or lived at that time and which is still with us. And it's been very difficult to implement the Brown decision in say New York or Boston or Atlanta and other places where we have this kind of social distortion. I lost my train of thought…
YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT…
So that the greatest effect of the Brown decision was, its, statement in effect that blacks are now a part of the family. And it gave the impetus for the students in 1960 for example, to sit in at segregated lunch counters in North Carolina. It was the spark which ignited the bus boycott in Montgomery, and it was the, the catalyst for all the demonstrations that we witnessed across the south after the Brown decision in the early ‘60s, like the freedom riders, and the voting rights campaign which culminated in a march from Selma to Montgomery. So that the decision itself was responsible for the civil rights revolution and the end result was that after a decade of litigation, the Supreme Court struck down state-enforced racial segregation in every area of the public life, in recreation and hospitals, even in courthouses themselves.
ELABORATE THE SENSE OF IT AFFECTING THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES, I THINK THE BLACK COMMUNITY ITSELF HAD—IT HAD—A PARTICULAR IMPACT ON THEM.
Yes, I think that the greatest impact of the Brown decision was on the black community itself. It was a statement to the black community that they had a friend so to speak, the Supreme Court. And so it emboldened the communities of blacks around the country to move forward to secure their own rights.** Prior to that time they were fearful frankly, of economic reprisal, particularly in the south if they struck out for equality. But once the Supreme Court decided the Brown case, they realized that they had support from one important arm of government anyway. And so they went ahead with their drive to eliminate segregation in all areas of the public life for the American community.
WE WERE LOOKING IN OUR PROGRAMS AT THE MASSIVE RESISTANCE MOVEMENT, THE RESISTANCE PARTICULARLY IN VIRGINIA, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY. I'M WONDERING IF YOU COULD TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THATI THAT QUESTION OF MASSIVE RESISTANCE AND HOW IT DEVELOPED OUT OF THE STATES' RIGHTS PROBLEM.
After the Brown decision in 1954, I think we were not really quite prepared for the extent to which the south would resist the implementation of the Brown decision. In fact the shutting down of the NAACP in Alabama, the resistance evidenced in places like Virginia and Arkansas, the legislative investigations committees in Florida and in other states, really frightened us,** we were not prepared to protect black lawyers for example who were summoned before these legislative committees. We were not quite prepared for the shutting down of the NAACP in Alabama. We had to suddenly become corporate lawyers. We were driven out of Mississippi so to speak, because the NAACP had failed to pay a corporation tax. We had never heard of any such thing because we were civil rights lawyers, and so the resistance was really much more than we had anticipated. We obviously knew there would be resistance but the sophisticated level of the resistance was what we had not anticipated.
DID YOU ANTICIPATE THIS DOCTRINE OF INTERPOSITION COULD YOU TELL US WHAT THAT IS AND…
Well, of course the south had many strategies which it invoked after the Brown case to prevent its implementation. One came out of the dark past called "interposition and nullification": words which the American people had not heard in this century at least. And what it was in effect, was the statement that the south intended to resist as they had during the period of the civil war any national or federal imposition of a, policies of integration on them. And of course they pursued that policy in many states. In Mississippi for example, when James Meredith was finally admitted by court action to the University of Mississippi, the governor called for every official in the state to resist the implementation of that decision. Now that was outright rebellion against the United States, and as you know, that decision of the Supreme Court that he should be admitted had to be enforced by the use of federal troops. Prior to that, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown itself had to be implemented in Arkansas with the use of federal troops. So the south did resist in many ways the implementation of the Brown decision.
YOUR OPINION OF THE CONSTITUION BASES WITH THESE DOCTRINES OF INTERPOSITION…
Of course, all of these strategies which the south, utilized after the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case to try to prevent its implementation were ultimately declared void by the United States Supreme Court and the lower federal courts as these cases were brought by us and others to have these efforts abolished, And these efforts were plainly illegal. I think one of the things that we should always remember is that the constitution had to go through a severe test during all of this period in our country's history, and it emphasized I think for the American people the importance of the fact that we had a constitution which guaranteed equality. And it [magnified?] the role of the courts in our society. Because it became the responsibility of the court and particularly the United States Supreme Court to repeatedly interpret the extent to which the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equality for blacks.
LET'S JUMP AHEAD TO OLD MISS. JAMES MEREDITH'S ADMISSION TO THE UNIVERSITY—THE LEGAL ISSUE AROUND JAMES MEREDITH'S ADMISSION TO OLD MISS WHY IT TOOK SO LONG.
Well, of course the legal issue in the Meredith case was relatively simple: the state of Mississippi of course had a policy of excluding blacks from the university. The court proceeding took a great deal of time, about a year and a half because the state was resisting that ultimate decision which they knew was coming at some time. A great deal of the legal proceedings in the end involved the states resistance to the decision the governors calling upon all state officials to resist. The Governor was cited for contempt of court by the Fifth Circuit. And he finally of course gave in and allowed James Meredith to matriculate at the University. But he had to do so with federal troops at his side and they remained with him through the entire year that he spent, or year and a half, I forgot not, which but all the time that he was there he attended with federal troops at his side—so that the Supreme Court's decision could be enforced. The Supreme Court has no method for enforcing its own decrees as you well know. But the president of the United States under the constitution does have the constitutional duty to uphold the law. And so when state officials say we will not abide by a Supreme Court decision, then it becomes the duty of the president to enforce it with force if necessary. And that's what happened in the University of Mississippi case.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THESE TACTICS OF THE UNIVERSITY, TRYING TO LOOK AT JAMES MEREDITH'S RECORDS TO SEE IF HE WAS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT AND THESE VARIOUS TACTICS IN THE LOWER COURT. WERE YOU PREPARED FOR THAT?
Well, we expected of course resistance from Mississippi with respect to James Meredith's admission. We know that the state would use every strategy available to it to try to prevent his from attending. And of course they looked into his background in vain, for something which they could use against him, something which would say that he was an undesirable individual and was therefore disqualified for that reason and not because of his race. They knew full well that if they came out in a court decision and said, "We don't want him in here because he's black," the court would have to rule with us obviously. But if they could find some other reason for his disqualification, that was what they were looking for. And of course that took a great deal of time in the court proceeding to try to defeat all their efforts to discredit him.
COULD YOU GIVE US A DESCRIPTION FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW OF JAMES MEREDITH, PERSONALLY?
I think James Meredith had planned to be the Mississippian who would knock first on the door of the University of Mississippi. He spent nine years in the armed forces in the Air Force particularly before he actually made that application. He knew that he was not qualified initially so that while he was in the armed services he took every course available to servicemen, starting at the high school level because he didn't qualify for college level courses. And after he convinced himself, that he had the academic ability, he took difficult courses like Chinese history and Russian grammar as I recall when he was stationed in Japan, at the University of Maryland's Far East extension program. And once he convinced himself, as I've said, that he had the academic qualifications then he left the service and moved back to Mississippi from which he had been absent for nine years and made his application, of course with the aid of Medgar Evers who was the NAACP field secretary at that time. A lot of the Mississippians believed that we sought out James Meredith and paid him to do this, but that's not true at all, it was his idea and his own preparation of himself which gave him the strength, the individual strength and endurance to see the thing through.
I THINK THAT THERES AND IMAGE OF HIM AND I'M WONDERING IF HE RAN TO THIS, AS A DIFFICULT PERSON, WAS HE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH?
Well, of course he had a lot of fear to live with. And I think at times that got the best of him. And of course he was projected into the national spotlight which very few of us can really successfully handle. And so he had a great deal of stress which accompanied his efforts, particularly the fear of being killed.
I THINK YOU TOLD US A STORY ABOUT THAT BEFORE, ABOUT HOW HE CARRIED A STICK.
Yes, when I first met James Meredith, he was carrying a cane and he didn't seem to me to need it. And so one day I finally said to him, "Why are you carrying that cane?" And he said "Well, I think that if I an attacked, I'll need it." He was a slightly built young man and he wasn't very tall and so he thought that the cane would of course serve as a weapon. And I said "Well, why do you need it here in the black community, you know, if you got to the University I could see that you might need it." He said, "Well, I think that if I'm killed it'll be here in the black community by some black person who's been paid by the state or other officials to do, to do that." He really believed that and so he walked with this cane because he was honestly fearful that he was going to be killed.
LIKE TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE 8TH CIRCUIT COURT, JOHN MINOR…..
JUDGE WISDOM CHARACTERIZED MEREDITH WITH SOME MEMORABLE WORDS. HE CALLED HIM "A MAN WITH A MISSION AND A NERVOUS STOMACH," AND I'M WONDERING WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THAT.
Oh, yes, well that comes from, that is the characterization of James Meredith as a man with a mission and a nervous stomach comes from his army record. One of the things that the state officials did in order to try to, to disqualify him was to ask for his army record, which he consented to and in the record it showed that he went to a doctor, I think it was a psychologist periodically while he was in the service and complained about a nervous stomach, and he seemed to get this nervous stomach whenever he read about something in the newspaper like the Arkansas case where Faubus resisted or the Lucy case in Alabama, where the state resisted there, because he knew that he was preparing himself for that role with respect to, to Mississippi, so he became quite nervous and his nervousness seemed to flare up as I've said whenever there was a big headline incident in the country about the racial integration struggle.
STOP. SR 1154, CR 209.
THE FIFTH CIRCUIT ALSO CALLED THE, CHARACTERIZED THE EARLIER TRIAL IN THE DISTRICT COURT TRIAL AS BEING CONDUCTED IN THE EERIE ATMOSPHERE OF NEVER- NEVER LAND, I'M WONDERING IF THAT WAS TRUE?
Well, of course the trial of the Meredith case took a long time. When we first went before Judge Mise, I believe that he immediately denied us a preliminary injunction and we appealed that to the Fifth Circuit and the Fifth Circuit upheld that denial and said that we should go back and try the case in its entirety and we did that and of course as I've said the state took a long time because it had brought in Meredith's Army record which it went through and it did all kinds of things to delay the ultimate day. And [so?] the trial did have some bizarre aspects. Normally the trial should not have lasted as long as it did, but you had to understand there was a strategy operating here and that was the strategy of delay, and hopefully a strategy which would derail James Meredith in his effort to enter the University of Mississippi.
ONE OF THE POINTS YOU BROUGHT UPI SPEAKING OF THE DELAYS BEFORE WAS JUDGE CAMERONS ISSUANCE OF ORDERS SUSTAINING [STAYS?]. I WONDER IF YOU COULD TALK ABOUT HOW PECULIAR THIS WAS?
Yeah, well, after the court of appeals for the fifth circuit finally ordered James Meredith's admission, one of the more bizarre aspects of the whole situation legally speaking, was the effort by Judge Cameron of that court to further delay his admission. Judge Cameron was not one of the three Judges who composed the panel that decided the case.
YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT JUDGE CAMERON'S ISSUANCE OF THE STAYS.
After the Fifth Circuit finally ordered James Meredith's admission to the University, one of the more bizarre aspects of the case arose when Judge Cameron of Mississippi issued an order staying the direction of the three judges who sat on the case. This had never happened before in the whole history of our jurisprudence. That is a judge of the court of appeals issuing an order staying the decision of three other judges who were the judges making the decision. And so we had to take that to the United States Supreme Court before James Meredith was finally admitted. Of course the ultimate effect of that was to further delay his admission. But this was just one more indication of the intensity with which Mississippi officials resisted the Brown case. Here was the Judge, a federal judge sitting on the court of appeals, saying in effect, "No," to the United States Supreme Court with respect to the Brown case. A judge who was sworn to uphold the law, who did something which was obviously illegal, and that's what happened in connection with that case. It's never happened before in the whole history of the country and probably never will happen again.
EVENTUALLY THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION DID ENTER THE MEREDITH CASE AS A FRIEND OF COURT. THEY SENT THE MARSHALS IN AND SO FORTH. BUT DID YOU OR DID MR. MEREDITH FEEL THAT IF THEY'D ACTED SOONER, IF THEY'D BEEN MORE FORCEFUL IN THEIR ACTION, MIGHT HAVE AVOIDED SOME OF THE ANTAGONISM OR EVEN THE BLOODSHED?
Well, I doubt that. I think that even if the government had come in earlier into the case, we probably would have run into the same kind of resistance. You have to understand that everyone expected that Mississippi would resist. Mississippi had long been the state which offered the most resistance since the Civil War to the idea of equality for blacks. You may recall that after the civil war, blacks were in control of the government of the state of Mississippi and the whites of the state resented that very such and when they were finally able to displace the Reconstruction government, which was predominantly black, they vowed that blacks would never again be in control of that government, and since blacks were I think the majority of the state's population at that time, the whites offered a great deal of resistance to the idea of ending segregation. So it wasn't a surprise at all that Mississippi would offer resistance. The government knew it, we knew it and so the government was hoping like everybody else, I guess they'd never have to face this. But ultimately they did and ultimately, as you know, President Kennedy had to send in federal troops to secure James Meredith's admission.
YOU DON'T THINK IT WOULD HAVE BEEN, YOU'RE SAYING IN OTHER WORDS, YOU THINK IT WAS APPROPRIATE, THE POINT AT WHICH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ENTERED THE CASE?
Well, yes, they should have entered as a friend of the court earlier, when we brought the suit. But they like everybody else, was hoping that we wouldn't have to face this ultimate test of federal versus state power and that's what it was: again a struggle on the part of the national government to impose or enforce rather a decision of the United States Supreme Court in a state that wanted to resist. Now that doesn't happen very often in our history. And everyone knew that that would be traumatic for the country and it was. And so like everyone else the government was hoping that they wouldn't have to face that trauma.
I THINK YOU CALLED IT LAST TIME SOMETHING ALONG THE LINES OF, "THE LAST CHAPTER OF THE CIVIL WAR."
I think that when James Meredith finally went in to the University of Mississippi and finally graduated, we saw the last chapter of the Civil War.
WERE THERE ANY ACTIONS THAT YOU THINK THE GOVERNMENTI THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT COULD HAVE TAKEN DIFFERENTLY THAT WOULD HAVE AVOIDED THE RIOTS THAT NIGHT?
I think that what happened when James Meredith finally went to the University of Mississippi the night of the riot, when three or four people were killed, resulted.
I think what really happened the night that James Meredith was, Meredith was finally admitted to the University of Mississippi when a couple of people were killed was that the state officials reneged on a promise that they had made to see that the state troops kept the peace. And I think that the attorney general and perhaps the president were relying on an agreement that they thought they had reached to that effect. And when the state troops failed to appear and to keep people from being violent, of course Meredith had to be withdrawn and ultimately federal troops had to appear there if he was to actually enter. And it was that failure of the state to protect Meredith which caused the federal government to have to send troops in, which was the last thing that anybody wanted in Mississippi, but they, I think in effect brought it on themselves by failing to, themselves, protect the rights of one of their citizens.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN; ON THAT MORNING WHEN JAMES MEREDITH WALKS UP AND IS FINALLY REGISTERED, GOES TO CLASSES, HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
Well, of course we were always joyous whenever we managed to accomplish the admission of a black to a previously all white school and with respect to Mississippi that had offered all that resistance of course we were particularly joyous and we, we, I think that was about the last state to open its doors to, to blacks, I think South Carolina was in fact the last, with the Clemson case involving Harvey Gant whose now the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, but since the Mississippi case had been such a celebrated case it gave us particular joy to know that we had finally accomplished that.
YOU MUST HAVE ALL BEEN VERY TIRED AND PROBABLY FAIRLY MIXED FEELINGS AFTER ALL THE RIOTING.
Well, of course we were always tired during those years. Things were happening so rapidly there wasn't time to take a vacation or to reflect on anything very long before that new situation developed. I know that when the Meredith case was filed, it coincided with the Freedom Riders arrival in Mississippi, which of course, was not a good context, and which to bring that suit, but those were historical developments which we could not control and a lot of people thought we could control in the course of the civil rights movement, but we could not, because it was a genuine revolution on the part of black people.** It wasn't directed by us, it was spontaneous and it arose from new confidence in the black community that the Supreme Court was their protector as they moved forward in the struggle.
I THINK YOU TALKED A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THAT TO US IN TERMS OF THAT BEING A REALLY A LESSON SOMETHING THAT WAS REALLY LEARNED IN, BY PEOPLE IN, BY JAMES MEREDITHS ENROLMENT, SOMETHING YOU HAD WON IN A SENSE, THE UNDERSTANDING BY MANY PEOPLE THAT THE FEDERAL COURTS UNDER GOVERNMENT WAS GOING TO BE THEIR ALLY. I REMEMBER TALKING WITH YOU ABOUT THIS, HOW IT WAS A LESSON IN HOW THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT WORKED IN EFFECT.
Yes, I think one of the things about the Meredith case was that it demonstrated for the American people how the, the system really works. As I pointed out, the Supreme Court does not have any means by which to enforce its own decision. And it's rare indeed that a state government says in effect we're not going to abide by a decision of the United States Supreme Court. And certainly except for Arkansas and Alabama, the American people had never had to confront the issue of how a Supreme Court decision is to be enforced if there is resistance and so they learned that it is the duty of the President of the United States, not the Supreme Court to enforce Supreme Court decisions. And that is a president's sworn duty to uphold the law. And so that if state officials or anyone else says that he is not going to abide by a Supreme Court decision, that really presents a serious, grave constitutional crisis for the president.
STOP. CR 211
GOING BACK TO THE CIRCUIT COURT LEVEL, WE HAVE READ SOMEWHERE I BELIEVE THAT YOU CONSIDERED ASKING THEM ALL, EVEN DID ASK THEM TO REGISTER JAMES MEREDITH RIGHT THERE IN COURT AND JUST GET IT OVER WITH, IS THAT TRUE?
Yes, I think during the argument in the 5th Circuit, one of the things we did was to ask the court to register James Meredith right then and there. You know the situation was unprecedented. The Court of Appeals acted as a trial court in that situation, because they felt that the district judge in Jackson would not proceed promptly with the matter of finally getting James Meredith enrolled. So the court of appeals itself sat as a trial court in effect, and issued the orders. Now when the governor resisted, the Governor of Mississippi resisted, he was then cited by that court for contempt of its orders. And a trial was hold in that court of the governor and his resistance to the court's decision and he was found in contempt of the fifth circuit's order to admit James Meredith, he was given an opportunity of course as required by law to purge himself of contempt by admitting him and that of course is what ultimately happened. But I don't think there was ever a time in this country where a governor was held in contempt of a Sup- of a court of appeals decision and was actually tried in a court of appeals for that contempt.
WAS THE IDEA OF REGISTERING MEREDITH TO GET HIM REGISTERED OR TO PROVE A POINT OR BOTH? WAS IT TO PROVE TO PEOPLE THAT HE WAS GOING TO, TO THE UNIVERSITY OR WAS IT TO JUST GET THROUGH THE FORMALITIES?
Well, it was, our request to the fifth circuit to register Meredith was an attempt to shortcut the situation which we felt we were going to encounter if we had to go back to the district court and we felt that if the Court of appeals would register him right then and there, it would eliminate what we thought would be another confrontation with state officials. But they did not do that, they didn't adopt that strategy, they ordered the governor to move out of the way, so to speak, and let the legal process take its course.
LAST TIME YOU GAVE US A DESCRIPTION OF MEREDITH AS BEING THE THRIFTIEST PERSON YOU EVER KNEW AND IT, IT STUCK IN MY HEAD AS BEING REALLY, SAYING SOMETHING ABOUT HIM.
Now, during the course of the trial in the Meredith case as I've said, the court allowed the state officials to get Meredith's military record, Meredith had to consent. He felt he had nothing to hide really, and of course the state was looking for something to discredit him and it was a boom-a-rang so to speak in that they found that in his Army record one of his superior officers had said that Meredith was the thriftiest man in the service in terms of conversation of men, money and materials. He used to save scraps of paper and he saved all of his earnings while he was in the service. He was married part of the time and I think his wife worked and he had an opportunity while he was stationed in Japan for example to live in housing provided for American servicemen, but he and his wife elected to live in the rice paddies with the Japanese where it cost very little money. And that was because Meredith was saving every penny. The state thought he had a lot of money and they wanted to know the source of it. And there it was in his Army record that he saved all of his money. He had one suit the whole time that I knew him and that kind of thing. He wore Army fatigues and he just didn't spend any money. He, he was a poor boy of course, but he was certainly a very thrifty person.
This is sound roll [?].
OKAY, DID YOU SEE A CHANGE IN THE COURT WHEN EARL WARREN CAME ON?
Well, certainly his opinion in the Brown case was a surprise to everyone because of its simplicity and its clarity and its forthrightness and I think that from the, we could see a chief justice who was going to go down in history, so to speak because of his courage in protecting the rights of black Americans, which was not the most popular subject in the country. Little was known about what he might do when he got on the court of course, because he had been Governor of California and had been in positions other than that of a judge, where he had made his mark. And it's always difficult to tell what's going to happen to someone who's been appointed to the Supreme Court. We've been wrong about many people. I know the NAACP opposed Justice Black and he turned out the be one of the foremost protectors of black rights on the court. So no one can really tell when a man is appointed to the Supreme Court what his judicial tendencies or leanings might be. But in the case of Earl Warren as I've said, we in the black community certainly were pleasantly surprised to find a man who seemed to understand our plight as American citizens.
IT WAS A SURPRISE, THE BROWN DECISION, OR WAS IT A SURPRISE THAT IT WAS UNANIMOUS?
Oh, yes, I think we were clearly surprised that it was a unanimous decision in the Brown case. We thought that if we won, at best it would be five to four, and the unanimity of that decision I think was most important to its implementation. If it had not been unanimous, I have no doubt that that decision would not have been enforced as well as it had been enforced in my view despite all of the notions to the contrary. I think that the Brown decision changed this country and its effect was far beyond education as we all know.
I'M GONNA JUMP AHEAD TO OLD MISS. NO, BEFORE I DO IT, MAYBE I'M WONDERING, YOU WERE SAYING THE BROWN DECISION HAD AN ENORMOUS IMPACT AND I'M WONDERING IF YOU COULD THINK ABOUT IT IN TERMS OF, OF THE EARLIER SCHOOL SEGREGATION CASES: LIITLE ROCK NINE, PRINCE EDWARD. DO YOU HAVE THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BROWN DECISION AND THE RESISTANCE TO IT?
Well of course, after the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case, the legal defense fund set about the task of trying to implement that decision. And we made a conscious determination to start with the border states like Kentucky and Tennessee and Maryland and then eventually moved south to the hard core states, as we called them: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. And that was the game plan and we followed that as best we could. Although there were demands from people all over the south to have us represent them in cases. But we knew that as we moved further south there would be tremendous resistance. The first major resistance of course, cone in the little rock case in 1958 I guess it was, when Governor Faubus decided to defy the Supreme Court, and which required President Eisenhower to send troops to enforce the Supreme Court's decision. And then you know later when we went to Mississippi finally, that was a state which offered the greatest resistance to the, the Brown decision. The governor called upon every official in the state to resist. And those who believed that that was wrong I think were even fearful of saying so, because the overwhelming majority of the officials did see to agree with the governor—state officials I'm talking about—that the supreme courts' decision in the Brown case should not be implemented in Mississippi.
WE ARE IN MISSISSIPPI. JAMES MEREDITH. WHAT WAS THE LEGAL ISSURE AROUND JAMES MEREDITH'S ADMISSION TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI, AND AGAIN YOU WANT TO BE LOOKING AT ME AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
Now, after having opened the University in each state, we finally got an applicant in the state of Mississippi who requested our assistance. Contrary to what many southerners believed, particularly southern officials, we did not solicit James Meredith. Going to the University of Mississippi was James Meredith's idea. He was a native Mississippian. He left his home state when he graduated from high school. Went to Florida and went to high school there and then finally went into the service where he spent nine years and when he had been in the service nine years, he decided that he himself would be the black in the state of Mississippi to challenge that state's system of racial segregation. He left the army, enrolled in Jackson state college in Jackson and from there he made his application to the University of Mississippi. He contacted Medgar Evers who was then the state secretary of the NAACP and Medgar Evers wrote us in Now York and said that he had a young man who came to his office and wanted help in seeking admission to the University of Mississippi. Now his was a by that time, a classic legal case. There was nothing unusual legally of, speaking about his case. He, the University of Mississippi was for whites only. And the Supreme Court in Brown had ruled that the state could not have segregated education. So it wasn't complicated legally. The problem with Mississippi was that it was the state that everyone suspected would offer the greatest resistance to blacks being admitted to white schools. And of course that is exactly what happened. And it cost the government millions of dollars in enforcing that decision through the use of federal troops. Meredith went through under guard for a year and a half.
JUST BEFORE WE GET TO ACTUALLY GETTING HIM IN, YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT IT'S A SIMPLE CASE LEGALLY, BUT THERE WERE AN ENORMOUS NUMBER OF STRATEGIES INVOLVED IN……
CAMERA ROLL 143.
The Meredith case took eighteen months in court, which is probably not an inordinate length of time as legal cases go. But I think one of the reasons for it was that we took an appeal from the district court's denial of our motion for a preliminary injunction which sought his admission pending the outcome of the trial. Now that appeal was denied and we had to go back and have a full trial because the relief which we were seeking was the ultimate relief in the case, his admission. And everyone knew full well that when his admission came about there would be this resistance. And so there was a tendency perhaps to take some time in finally getting the decision out, but I don't think eighteen months if you look at it, was extraordinarily long period of time.
ALL THROUGH THAT EIGHTEEN MONTHS, WAS THERE ANY PARTICULAR DAY OR PART OF THAT EIGHTEEN MONTHS TKAT STANDS OUT IN YOUR MIND AS BEING FUNNY OR, OR APPALLING OR EXCITING?
Well, of course, there are many bizarre things which occurred. Once the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in that James Meredith was entitled to admission, one of the judges of that court, then Cameron, on his own issued an order barring James Meredith's admission. Now he did not sit on the three- judge panel of that court that actually heard and decided that case and that was most unusual and so we had to go to the United States Supreme Court to get that order set aside before Meredith was finally admitted and that had never happened before in the history of the country. And everybody thought, "My goodness, what about that judge?" But it did add to the length of time in the courts before he was finally admitted.
YOU DESCRIBED JAMES MEREDITH'S HISTORY FOR US, BUT I WONDER IF YOU COULD DESCRIBE HIM FOR US AS A PERSON. PHYSICALLY, WHAT MADE HIM TICK DO YOU THINK?
Well, James Meredith was an unusual young man. He was the kind of person that one seldom sees in a young person. For example, when he was in the service he had saved every penny I think he earned practically in the service. Uh, when he had an opportunity while stationed in Japan to live in housing provided for American servicemen, it would have cost him some money and he didn't want to spend any money so he lived with the Japanese and the rice paddies. When I met him, he owned one blue suit. He walked around in his army fatigues I think they were called and he never spent his money on clothes. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, or anything like that. When he came out of the service he had a little bundle. And that is what convinced the state that he had been paid by the NAACP to be the plaintiff. And of course they were never able to prove that because it wasn't true. What they didn't know was that this man was a very thrifty kind of person, contrary to most young people. And they, the state lawyers sent for his Army record, Meredith consented to it, they were looking for something in his background to disqualify him on character grounds. And instead of finding anything derogatory they found that one of his superior officers wrote a report on him which said that this man is the thriftiest man in the service, not only in terms of conserving money, but he saves paper, every scrap of paper that we throw out, he saves it.
DID YOU WORK WELL WITH HIM?
Oh, yes, we got along very well. I think he was pleased that we seemed prepared and ready to move forward. That had not been a part of his experience. He knew very few professional black people. After all he was born in Mississippi. And he seemed very pleased to find that at least we were able to respond when he felt that we should be responding. And uh, that pleased him a great deal I think.
IN THE TRIAL, I WONDER THE OTHER THING THAT I'VE READ ABOUT IN THE TRIAL, WAS THE OTHER [?], AND THE UNIVERSITY'S UNWILLINGNESS TO USE PEOPLE'S LAST NAMES—MR. MEREDITH FOR EXAMPLE, WAS CALLED "JAMES." WAS THAT TRUE?
Well, in Mississippi generally and throughout the south, for that matter it was a custom from slavery to address blacks either as boy or women by their first names. Black women were not accorded the dignity of being addressed as Miss or Mrs. And when I first went to Jackson Mississippi in 1949 thee I think it was the Jackson Daily News was the name of the newspaper, they refused to address me as Mrs. Motley, they referred to me as "the Motley woman" and some of the lawyers who opposed me in the cases which I brought in Mississippi refused to address me as "Mrs." Motley and of course that was something which surprised me a great deal, because I wasn't accustomed to that, having been born and reared in New Haven, Connecticut and living in New York, I knew about it but when it actually happens you are really shocked that any person who calls himself educated and professional like a lawyer would refuse to address another lawyer as Miss or Mrs. but that's what actually happened.
I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU HAD AT ONE POINT EXPRESSED THE OPINION THAT JAMES MEREDITH MIGHT NOT LIVE TO ENROLL IN THE UNIVERSITY. IS THAT TRUE?
During the time that the case was going on, James Meredith was fearful that he would be killed. He, when I met him, he walked with a cane and I didn't notice that he limped or needed any cane at all for any physical reason, and one day I finally said to him, "Why do you carry that cane?" And he said "Well, you know, I'm not a very big. . ." He was a slightly built man: he was, he's about 5'7 and at the time I guess he weighed 140 pounds. He said "You know, if I'm attacked, I need something to defend myself, and if I'm. . ." And I said, "But here you are in the black community and you rarely go outside. He said "No, if I'm attacked it'll be by another black who's been paid to kill me." And so…
[Audio tape runs out. Side two]
"…it will be by another black who's been paid to kill me." And so he lived with that fear for the eighteen months and of course when he was finally admitted to the University of Mississippi, he went to school with a U.S. Marshal at his side. A U.S. Marshal slept in his room at night and for at least a year, I think he attended at least a year, that's what he lived with, the fear of being killed. And that's a strain on anyone.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US THE ROLE OF THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION IN THIS BATTLE. HOW SYMPATHETIC THEY WERE, HOW ACTIVE…
Well, as I recall during the Meredith case, particularly after the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit had ruled, and as I pointed out earlier, Judge Cameron's bizarre order had been set aside, the Kennedy administration moved to intervene in the case as an amicus curiae. I don't recall now technically whether they became parties, but naturally their responsibility was going to be to enforce that decision. And so they intervened at that point to make sure that whatever was required of them was done hopefully through the courts and that they would not ultimately have to resort to the use of force but as time went on it became clear that that might be the result, they thought they had worked out an understanding with the Governor of Mississippi at that time, Ross Barnett, that Meredith would go in with the protection of the state forces and a federal force would be unnecessary, but as you know what happened was the state forces did not appear, several people were killed including a French newspaperman and other people on the first try with respect to James Meredith's admission. And so it was then necessary for President Kennedy to send in federal troops because a court as you might realize does not have any power or force attached to the court to enforce its own decisions. The constitution places that responsibility upon the president. And the president if necessary when a state resists, a lawful order of a federal court must enforce that decision even if it requires the use of federal troops to do so. And in the Meredith case of course, federal troops were required just as in the Little Rock, Arkansas case.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS SAYS ABOUT OUR FEDERAL SYSTEM ACTUALLY THAT YOU HAVE COURTS THAT CAN, YOU CAN COME TO THE POINT IN OUR FEDERAL SYSTEM WHERE A COURT ORDER CANNOT BE, IS NOT BEING OBEYED AND REQUIRES ANOTHER BRANCH OF THE GOVERNMENT TO ENFORCE IT?
Well, of course um, what really happened was that I guess we were playing out the last chapter of the Civil War, and we had a war in this country, most people have forgotten that, concerning the rights of black Americans, and
I WAS ASKING WHAT THIS SAID ABOUT THE LEGAL SYSTEM?
Well, of course what really happened in the Meredith case when the state decided to resist, they were playing out the last chapter in the Civil War. I think most Americans have forgotten that there was a war, a Civil War in this country, over the rights of black Americans. The south fought the north over this question. And there was lingering bitterness and disagreement for many years, and the south insisted on denying black Americans full citizenship rights. And so here we were in 1961 with the south saying to the north in effect, or the rest of the country, "We're not going to give blacks equal rights. We think that separate but equal is good enough for now." And so the constitution was really put to a test here, the new constitution that is, which came about with the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave black Americans their rights. And Mississippi was really challenging constitutional provisions, those constitutional provisions. Now when a federal court issues a lawful order, to enforce the constitutional rights of any Americans that have been, the responsibility for the enforcement falls upon the President, because the court doesn't have the physical means to enforce the decision. But the president does, and he has the armed forces of the United States, to put down any resistance, physical resistance, such as we had in Mississippi, to the enforcement of a lawful order of the federal court. Because under our system, the federal government is supreme, supreme to any state government and the south was not agreeing to that proposition when it came to the rights for black Americans. And so our constitution was put to the test, as I have said, and survived. Our country is stronger now for having had that demonstration of what the constitution means in practical application.
THAT MAY BE PART OF THE ANSWER TO THE NEXT QUESTION, WHICH IS, WHAT WAS WON AND WHAT WAS LOST WHEN JAMES MEREDITH WAS ENROLLED….
Well, when James Meredith was finally enrolled, in the University of Mississippi, think the American people finally understood that if the constitution is enforced, then black Americans will receive their rights. If they're not, if the constitution is not enforced of course, that will not happen. And it sometimes requires the ultimate force in order to do so and in that case of course we did have to use the ultimate force. But that's unusual, but I think it was an important lesson for the American people to understand how their government, how their constitution I should say, is really put into effect.
IS THERE ANYTHIGN LOST THESE DAYS?
No, I don't think so. I think that sometimes it's necessary for us to have such a demonstration, because as I've said people forget how the constitution came about, what it stands for, they know little about courts unfortunately, and particularly about the federal courts and the role of the federal courts in our society. And of course since '54, Americans have become fully aware that there is such a thing as a federal court. Before that, the federal courts were in the background and everyone knew we had a Supreme Court somewhere in Washington, but they could not tell you really the average citizen, what the role of the supreme court in our society is or was. But they certainly can now. I think they know that the federal courts are very important. In fact I think most Americans are convinced that if you want to get anything done, you go to a federal court. And that's unfortunate for us federal judges because it brings us much litigation. But I think the civil rights cases demonstrated for the American people that there is a branch of government that will respond a, to the deprivation of basic human rights.
STOP, PLEASE. SLATE.
WHEN JAMES MEREDITH WAS ENROLLED, DID YOU FEEL A SENSE OF VICTORY, OF TRIUMPH, WHEN HE DECIDED TO STAY ON?
Well of course, when Meredith was finally enrolled, we all were very pleased and happy that a difficult task had been accomplished. We feared for his survival obviously and we feared for him as an individual. We didn't know whether he could really withstand the pressures to which he would be subjected. As I told you, his basic fear was that he would be killed. I don't know how he managed to get through but he did. And so we were concerned about him as a human being, but he managed to as I say, pass his exams and come out from under that tremendous pressure in which he'd lived for then, when he finally graduated, was two and a half years of the daily pressure on him. He became a national hero and he had to deal with that. He then had to deal with the aftermath when people many years later tended to forget. There were so many other episodes in our history of equal significance. But I think he's managed to survive. He's had a difficult ordeal. And it had its effect upon him. Basically, I think he has survived and has been successful.
After the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case, it was difficult for those of us who were on the staff, to anticipate what might happen throughout the country. As I told you, we had our own timetable for trying to enforce that decision by starting with the border states and moving south. But by 1960 we were surprised and taken unaware by the students who sat in at department store lunch counters in North Carolina. Here was a whole new dimension of the struggle which we had not anticipated. Prior to that, in 1956, or ‘58 I've forgotten which precisely, there was the Montgomery bus boycott where blacks demonstrated that beyond schools they were interested in the day-to-day indignities that they had to face and they wanted those wiped out, such as having to sit at the back of the bus and as you know Rosa Parks then resisted sitting in the back of the bus and that led to a whole new movement among blacks to do away with segregation in transportation, the Freedom Riders then followed. And things like that which kind of as they say, overshadowed for the moment it appeared, the Brown decision. But actually these things were the result of the Brown decision. I think the Brown decisions' greatest impact was on the black community, which took courage and decided I guess that they did have an ally, and that was the Supreme Court, and that all the things which had demeaned them for years, and, uh, things which they thought would never be done away with, they had become convinced that they could be done away. And so we had a movement that sprung up on its own among the people, and Martin Luther King of course emerged then as the leader of this people's movement. Up to this time it had been a movement composed largely of blacks, of black leadership class, middle class blacks, professional blacks who were in the vanguard of the struggle. But now we had a real people's struggle. And the, as I said, we could not be at the head of all of that crowd, but Martin Luther King managed to, as I've said, become the leader of that movement and to get people to respond to his call for peaceful demonstrations against segregation. And you know he succeeded.
Camera roll 145, sound 1120.
Well of course I think that there's one thing certainly that Earl Warren will be remembered for throughout history and that is his decision in the Brown case as I have said—and particularly the fact that the decision was unanimous. As I've told you in my view, unless that decision were unanimous, it would have meant even greater resistance than it did in an attempt to enforce it. And I think the unanimity came about as a result of Earl Warren's leadership. After all, as a chief justice he had the responsibility of trying to get the court to be unanimous so that the decision would represent the thinking of all of the judges and you wouldn't get lawyers trying to come back day after day, hoping they could get a five to four decision reversed. And he knew that would happen unless the decision was unanimous and that the turmoil which the decision was creating even then, would be greatly intensified. So as I have said, I think it was his leadership role, for which he deserves the greatest applause.
Room tone. Camera Roll 145, Sound Roll 11. . .? Sound 13.
FIRST WE'RE LOOKING, IT A GENERAL QUESTION, WE'RE LOOKING A DESCRIPTION, A WORD PICTURE OF THE SOUTH AS IT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950s, AS YOU WERE TRAVELLING THROUGH IT FOR TNE NAACP.
Well, during the 5O's, when I was traveling through the South, representing various plaintiffs in school desegregation cases, one of our most difficult problems was finding a place to stay. You know, the hotels and restaurants were all closed to us and so we had to rely on individuals who were not fearful of taking us into their homes and who would accommodate us with a room and a meal now and then. And, uh, I remember distinctly I could stay on my diet during those years because I didn't get that much to eat.
UH, WHAT A WONDERFUL THOUGHT. DID YOU HAVE A SENSE THAT YOU WERE PUTTING PEOPLE INTO JEOPARDY? WAS IT REALLY THAT DANGEROUS?
Oh yes. I think uh, in, uh, in the teacher's salary case in Mississippi, in 1949, people were definitely fearful of having us because the plaintiff in that case had lost her job and her husband had lost his job and uh, the only people we could stay with were people who were independent of the white community, that is a woman whose family who had an undertaking business and a black doctor. Those were the only two people who felt that uh, that they could invite us to dinner or have us stay in their homes without risk. Uh, we did stay in a so-called black hotel, but, um, it was what we called a flop house in New York.
WE NEED YOU TO TALK FOR US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH THE COUNTRY WAS CHANGING AT TBAT TIME, UH, THE FACTORS THAT WERE MAKING THE CIIMATE CHANGE SO THAT WE COULD HAVE THE BROWN CASE.
Well, I think after World War II, as a result of the activity of black servicemen, really, the whole attitude in the country about the race relations problem uh, changed. I think people became more aware that something had to be done about the fact that black servicemen were overseas dying for this country, and when they would be coming home, they would be coming home to a situation that said, in effect, you're a second class citizen. You can't go to school with white children, or your children can't. You can't stay in a hotel or a restaurant because you're black. And I think that gave the momentum, uh, in particularly in the black community uh, for the, what became the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘5Os and ‘60s.
THERE ARE, IN FACT, SOME FAIRLY CELEBRATED CASES, WERE THERE NOT, OF ATTACKS ON RETURNING VETERANS IN UNIFORM…
Well, during the war, [ at ] the servicemen much to our surprise joined the NAACP in very large numbers. In fact, the highest membership they ever had I believe was during World War II, and they wanted the NAACP to represent them in courts martial. They felt that black servicemen were receiving more severe sentences than white servicemen for the same crime. And so they looked toward that organization uh, to help them.
STOP PLEASE FOR A MOMENT. JUST WANT TO CHECK THAT EVERYBODY IS HAPPY. [TO CAMERA CREW] JUST THOUGHT YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHANGE. ALSO. . . IT'S IMPORTANT FOR OUR VIEWERS TO UNDERSTAND THAT THE BROWN CASE DID NOT JUST SPRING OUT OF NOWHERE…
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SO A BRIEF OVERVIEW, THIS, THE NAACP TO THAT POINT.
Well, of course, the NAACP was established in 1907 as an organization which uh, concerned itself with protecting the rights of black Americans. And in 1939, they set up a legal arm of the organization known as the NAACP legal defense and educational fund. And uh, after WWII was when they started uh, their strategy for attacking segregation per se through the legal defense fund. It was a program which had been in the making prior to WWII, which was abandoned during the war when all the attention was focused on black servicemen. And after the war, the program was revitalized, so to speak, and extended and eventually led to the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case in 1954.
WONDERFUL. I GOING TO ASK YOU WHY EDUCATION WAS TARGETED FOR CHANGE. I'M GOING ALSO ASK YOU TO KEEP LOOKING AT ME IF YOU CAN. IT HELPS. I KNOW THAT YOUR EYES, WHEN YOU THINK…
BUT [ WHY EDUCATION ] THE FIRST AREA TARGETED RATHER THAN PUBLIC FACILITIES?
Well, of course the organization had limited funds and resources and they had to elect one area which they felt was vital to the black community. And education seemed to be that area because most blacks believed as most whites in the nation that the solution to the black problem was to educating blacks so that they could compete in the larger society. And so education was the chief target of the, this attack on segregation itself. Before that, of course, the organization had represented blacks in criminal cases, had brought cases to open housing to blacks in Louisville and other places. But education seemed to be the one thing around which you could gather a lot of people and interest and money, particularly.
WAS IT BECAUSE IT WAS AN EMOTIONAL ISSUE THAT IT TOUCHED PEOPLE, THAT IT WAS CHILDREN? AND WASN'T IT DANGEROUS, TOO?
Well, of course, we started the attack on segregated education at the graduate and professional school level because that was an easier thing to do legally speaking because most of the southern states had not provided so-called professional separate but equal graduate and [ schools ] for blacks. So the first case involved the graduate and professional school level in Maryland then there was the Gaines case at the law school level in Missouri and then there was the Sweatt case at the law school level, the Sipuel case at the law school level, and then that McLaurin case at the graduate school level. And once we got blacks into that level, the, uh, the attack then moved down to the grammar school and high school level. And that was the level involved in the Brown case.
WONDERFUL. SOUND PLEASE. YES? THAT LIGHT WENT OUT.
SPEED. SOUND 15. WE'RE LOOKING FOR THE CHANGOVER POINT…
Well, of course, the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case has its own legal history. The Supreme Court did not decide that case in a vacuum, -or by itself, but against the background of other cases which had preceded it. And the cases which preceded Brown did not challenge segregation per se, they were brought within the context of the separate but equal doctrine. We had a clear [ cases ] where the state had failed to provide any facility for blacks. So it was easy to go in the court and say: "The state has failed to provide blacks with a separate law school. Therefore the plaintiff is entitled to admission to the one law that the state has provided for its citizens. Now the Brown case itself, however, after years of preparation, embodied this frontal attack upon the very concept of segregation per se, as applied to education. And so when the Supreme Court got that case, it had before it for the first time in our history, a direct assault on the concept of separate but equal as applied to education.
WHAT MADE THE BROWN CASE THE RIGHT CASE TO DO THAT? WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE FACTS OF THE CASE?
Well, again the Brown case involved five school districts. They're referred to as the Brown Case but actually it was a consolidation of five school cases from various parts of the country. The Brown case itself was Topeka, Kansas, which was an urban setting, whereas the case from South Carolina was from a rural county. Prince Edward County, Virginia, which was another case, was rural. It involved the District of Columbia, which was another urban setting and the state of Delaware. Now that combination of facts, of course, have played (?) its part because the court was concerned about the impact of its decision from the beginning what impact it might have in various areas. But as you recall, the court first dealt with the constitutionality of segregation itself. And then in a separate opinion in the following year dealt with the kind of relief that uh, plaintiffs in school cases would be entitled to because of this variance and difference in the context in which the particular case arose.
I FEEL LIKE I'M GETTING A WHOLE LEGAL HISTORY. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT A STRATEGIZING IN A SENSE. I WONDER IF YOU COULD TALK ABOUT THE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THAT STRATEGIZING, [ VERY SOME ] OF WHOM ARE NOT WELL KNOWN, LIKE CHARLES HOUSTON, AND SOME OF WHOM ARE WELL KNOWN LIKE MARSHALL. AS TIGHT A DESCRIPTION AS YOU'D LIKE…
Well, there are many people involved in developing the legal strategy uh, for attacking segregation per se. Among the leaders in that group were of course, Marshall, who was at that time the director-counsel of the NAAACP Legal Defense Fund. And his mentors were Charles Houston, former Dean at Howard Law School, and Charles Houston's cousin, William Hasty, who was the first black federal judge. Now, Houston and Hasty, in my view, were the chief officers of the legal structure, particularly Houston, who was the first director of NAACP legal defense fund. Now, both of those men, Houston and Hasty were Harvard-educated lawyers. They were men of truly outstanding ability in the legal field. Unfortunately, Houston's life was cut short. He died I think when he was in his 5O's. But he laid the initial ground work for the whole assault on segregation. And then his cousin, William Hasty picked up the task, and together with [Thurgood?] Marshall became the leaders in developing the strategy. Now when it came to the Brown case itself, the number of lawyers greatly expanded. I think we had at least 30 lawyers who actually worked on it. Some of them have become have become prominent, like William Coleman, who became Secretary of Transportation. He was also Harvard-educated lawyer who was a clerk to Mr. Justice Frankfurter. And then we had other lawyers like Lewis Pollop who's now a federal judge in Philadelphia. Robert Carter was Mr. Marshall's first assistant. He's now a federal judge in the same court in which I sit. And there were many others who were professors at Howard University, like James Neighbor and others who actually worked with us over a period of at least a year in developing the main brief in the Brown case, and then of course, the brief on the relief in the second year. In addition to the lawyers, we had to gather historians and sociologists. Kenneth Clark, as you know, played a prominent roll in the Kansas case. He actually testified as a witness as to the effect of segregation on black children. And the historians did the historical research for us on the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment with respect to school segregation.
IT'S LIKE AN ARMY, AND, AND, AT THE HEAD OF THIS ARMY IS THURGOOD MARSHALL. WE'RE REALLY GETTING TO THE COURT.
HOW WAS HE AS THE GENERAL OF THE ARMY, AS A PERSON?
Well, of course, his personality carried him a long way. He was a man of great intellect also. But I think it was his personality more than anything else which held this group of diverse people together. And lawyers are not an easy group to hold together. They're all prima donnas, so to speak. Uh, but he did a masterful job in trying to get all of these…
SORRY…JUST HAD A CAMERA ROLL…SORRY JUST NEED TO CHANGE THE FILM. CAMERA ROLL 142, SOUND 1118 CONTINUES, SOUND 15.
YOU WERE GIVING ME A DESCRIPTION OF THURGOOD MARSHALL AS CHIEF OF THE ARMY…
Well. Thurgood Marshall, as you know, who's now on the Supreme Court was the director counsel of the legal defense fund at this time and he had the difficult job of keeping this army of lawyers and sociologists and historians and psychologists together during the period when we [ developing ] the main brief to be filed in the Supreme Court in the Brown case. And of course, everybody knows how lawyers are, they're all prima donnas, and uh, I think the thing that enabled Thurgood Marshall to keep this group together was his personality. He was the kind of person that would make anybody feel good no matter what his problem, what kind of day. He was very, always, gregarious, always telling jokes and uh, he praised everybody, no matter how bad their work was. He had this kind of way with dealing with people, to make them all feel that whatever it was they were doing, it was helping the cause. Because the people who came to us were people who were interested in civil rights, the people who did want to do something to remedy this problem. And he knew they were volunteering their services. They weren't paid. And so he made them feel that what ever it was they were doing he needed them and people respond to people who make them feel needed and appreciated. And I think that's what kept this group together, because it was important to keep this group of experts and lawyers together so that this brief could finally come together.
NOW AT WHAT POINT DID YOU THINK THAT, THAT, THAT THIS MIGHT BE IT, THAT YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY WIN THIS ONE? AFTER THE FIRST ARGUMENT? AFTER THE NEW CHIEF JUSTICE CAME? EVER?
Well, it was difficult for us to tell after the argument in late 1953, when we finally filed that main brief and had the argument in the Supreme Court, which way the court would go. After all, this, that the court was the first time in this century was dealing with this issue. And it was very difficult to figure out exactly how each justice would rule. Now when a case was argued in the Supreme Court, sometimes the lawyers involved could tell you after the argument exactly how the decision was going to come how based on the question asked by the judges. But it was not possible to do that in this case, because riding with this case was this tremendous uh, uh impact that it was going to have on the social history of this country.
OK. PLEASE STOP. WHAT AM I LISTENING TO?
That's the wind outside.
DOES IT DO THAT ALWAYS?
No. Only when there's a storm. Try pushing the window all the way down.
TRY LOCKING IT…