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11th Circuit History Lesson!

Back when "community organizing" was considered a good thing and a positive human value, there were a few activists-- joined over time by others -- who sought to advance the cause of civil rights and human decency.

If you grew up in the South you know the culture and climate in which these leaders did their work, often paying with their life.

The final sequence of Easy Rider was no outlier -- bombings, beatings, incarceration and murder were the tools by which the "silent majority" sought to retain control of the instruments of white male hierarchical power.

"State's rights," "Federal overreach," "law and order," "judicial activism" and numerous other dog whistles were the intellectual justifications employed by the educated class for maintaining the status quo.

Sorry to get so ham-handedly serious, but I was genuinely moved by this story about the granting of national historic status to several courthouses within the old 5th Circuit in honor of former 5th and 11th Circuit judges who were instrumental in making our society a fairer and better place for all:
In a July 20 ceremony in Montgomery, National Park Service Director Jerome Jarvis cited the judges’ roles in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, and the desegregation of southern schools and universities. The judges also played leading roles in ending segregation of public facilities and upholding voting rights for African Americans.

“The courthouses in Alabama here, Georgia, and Louisiana were all involved in nation-changing events,” Jarvis said. “These courts bore the burden of enforcing Brown v. Board of Education after the Supreme Court rendered its historic decisions. …[They]  dealt effectively with southern massive resistance and obstructionism.”

Gerald B. Tjoflat, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the Eleventh Circuit, who knew and served with all three judges, said they also were remarkable examples of courage, dignity and personal civility in the midst of a national storm.

“It was a wrenching time. People were afraid of the unknown,” Tjoflat recalled. “You had to have a good spine. They just took the high road, and remained gracious all the time.”

Judges Tuttle, Wisdom and Johnson, appointed in the 1950s by President Eisenhower, all received the Presidential Medal of Freedom before their deaths in the 1990s.

President Carter, honoring Tuttle in 1981, called him “a true judicial hero,” adding, “With steadfast courage and a deep love and understanding of the region, he has helped to make the Constitutional principle of equal protection a reality of American life.”

Honoring Wisdom in 1993, President Clinton cited the “clarity and reason” of his judicial writing, adding, “Judge Wisdom’s opinions advanced civil rights and economic justice.”

Two years later, Clinton said that Johnson, a U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Alabama,  “changed the face of the South. … He challenged America to move closer to the ideals upon which it is founded.”

Wisdom, Tuttle and two other judges—John Robert Brown and Richard T. Rives—were known as the “Fifth Circuit Four.” Ironically, the term was coined as an insult by a fellow Fifth Circuit judge, Benjamin Cameron, who accused his colleagues of panel rigging in their zeal to overturn segregation.

By the time Tuttle became the Fifth Circuit’s chief judge in 1960, the promise of Brown v. Board had stalled, as school systems across the South ignored the Supreme Court’s mandate to integrate. The Fifth Circuit encompassed six southern states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida—although the latter three became the Eleventh Circuit in 1981.

When some federal judges bottled up desegregation suits by declining to issue final rulings, the Fifth Circuit cut through the delays—demanding immediate desegregation without waiting for final lower-court action. 

Most dramatically, the Fifth Circuit ordered an openly defiant governor to desegregate the University of Mississippi—a decision that sparked rioting and required troops to restore order.

Grudgingly, after multiple legal challenges, the Universities of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi all opened their doors to African Americans, and public school districts eventually did the same.

At the recent ceremony in Montgomery, Chief Judge Ed Carnes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, said the judges were just as unyielding with other racial injustice. Wisdom, he noted, dismissed claims that one city’s “colored only” signs were voluntary as “a disingenuous quibble that must rest on the assumption that federal judges are more naive than ordinary men.” Carnes added, “The judges of the old Fifth were not naive.”

Although a district judge, Johnson is perhaps best remembered, largely because he crossed paths with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1956, Johnson declared segregated buses in Montgomery were unconstitutional, ending a yearlong boycott that began with Rosa Parks’ arrest. In 1965, Johnson permitted marchers led by King to complete their journey from Selma into Montgomery, after police violence had thwarted them.

“There sat in this courtroom one person who refused to be a bystander, who spoke out against the status quo,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson at the July 20 ceremony.  “Judge Frank Johnson, for me, stands as a symbol that goodness … in the hands of even just one person can overcome.”

Despite their monumental impact, the judges were described as personally modest.
This s*%t is hard if you take it seriously.


  1. Really nice post about a very special memorial.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree and approve!


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