“One of the great, largely unknown stories of American history. This volume is a wonderfully evocative demonstration of something often discounted–how important law and lawyers were, and remain, in realizing the promise of full equality for all citizens.”—Kenneth W. Mack, author of Representing the Race
“Filled with tales of ordinary people exhibiting extraordinary courage, Voices of Civil Rights Lawyers provides a penetrating and vital new perspective on one of the most turbulent and important periods in American history.”—Lawrence Goldstone, author of Inherently Unequal
“Spriggs has performed a great service for future historians and for all of us by collecting the personal memories of lawyers who put their boots on the ground and their lives on the line in the Deep South during the tumultuous civil rights movement.”—James Blacksher, civil rights attorney, Birmingham, Alabama
“The different voices are incredibly effective at both describing a harrowing series of events for the lawyers and allowing readers to hear how they interpreted those events in their own individual ways. A powerful work.”—Thomas Aiello, author of Jim Crow’s Last Stand
While bus boycotts, sit-ins, and other acts of civil disobedience were the engine of the civil rights movement, the law provided context for these events. Lawyers played a key role amid profound political and social upheavals, vindicating clients and together challenging white supremacy. Here, in their own voices, twenty-six lawyers reveal the abuses they endured and the barriers they broke as they fought for civil rights.
These eyewitness accounts provide unique windows into some of the most dramatic moments in civil rights history—the 1965 Selma March, the first civil judgment against the Ku Klux Klan, the creation of ballot access for African Americans in Alabama, and the 1968 Democratic Convention. Voices of Civil Rights Lawyers depicts attorney-client relationships extraordinary in their mutual trust and commitment to risk-taking. White and black, male and female, northern- and southern-born, these recruits in the battle for freedom helped shape a critical chapter of American history.
Kent Spriggs, author of the two-volume Representing Plaintiffs in Title VII Actions, has been a civil rights lawyer for over fifty years. He practices in Tallahassee, Florida, where he was a city commissioner and mayor.
Excerpt from Chapter 5, Arrests of Lawyers (and Other “Minor Indignities”)
Neshoba County, Mississippi, 1966
It was the summer of 1966, and I was a volunteer civil rights attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, working for the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. Several volunteer attorneys and I were in the small office on a Sunday morning when someone came in and asked if anyone wanted to serve three subpoenas. We looked around at each other, mindful that this particular assignment might have a substantial downside.
The subpoenas were for Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price of Neshoba County and Chief Lassiter of the Philadelphia Police. Several days earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had led a demonstration in Philadelphia to commemorate the deaths of the Neshoba Three, the three civil rights workers murdered two years previously. During the demonstration, Sheriff Rainey and Chief Lassiter sat by as roughnecks—presumably Klansmen—roared and rumbled their trucks through the protest to disrupt it. Clearly law enforcement was not going to support the rights of the demonstrators to assemble and speak. In that era, it was not uncommon in such instances for civil rights leaders to file suit in federal court to force local law enforcement officers to protect the constitutional rights of civil rights participants. Dr. King filed such a suit.
In “one of those moments,” I heard myself pipe up and say that I would do it. I needed a partner, as such assignments were never done by one person. Another volunteer stepped forward. A preliminary injunction hearing was scheduled for Monday in Meridian, so the subpoenas needed to be served right away.
With the subpoenas in hand for Rainey and Price—both known to have been intimately involved in the 1964 civil rights murders—we drove off for Philadelphia with some measure of trepidation. On our drive from Jackson, I learned that my buddy for the day had been a U.S. Army spy in East Germany. I was impressed.
Reaching the town, we easily served Chief Lassiter. That would not be the case with the sheriff and his deputy.
The sheriff’s office was located in the county courthouse, but neither Rainey nor Price was there. Not surprisingly, we weren’t given any useful information as to their whereabouts, so we drove to the Freedom House in the black neighborhood. Freedom House was a generic term given to the headquarters for the civil rights movement in a great number of communities. The leader of the movement in Neshoba County was Reverend Slaughter.
We talked to Reverend Slaughter, who had a broken nose. He said that it had been broken by Willie Windham, the only black law enforcement officer in the county. It was not uncommon in those times for essentially allwhite law enforcement organizations to allow one black in uniform. Part of the bargain was that the token black was given a license to act lawlessly in the black community with impunity. Windham was the archetype for this pattern.
As we talked, others gathered out of curiosity. Someone noticed that there was a telephone repair truck about two hundred yards down the road, though no one knew of telephone outages. Then someone said that he thought that the deputy’s car that had just driven up next to the telephone repair truck was that of Deputy Price. My partner took the appropriate subpoena and walked down to serve Price.
He came back a few minutes later and beckoned me to get in the car. As we drove away from the Freedom House, he said that Price had threatened him and that we had to “get out of the county.”
For me, it was a rare moment, an epiphany of sorts. Every day, I thought to myself, Reverend Slaughter wakes up as a black civil rights leader in Neshoba County, willing to risk everything to support the movement. Here I have white skin privilege, education privilege, and would in a few weeks be leaving the state. This was the one day that I could make a contribution to the cause in Neshoba County.
“No,” I told my buddy. We couldn’t leave without trying harder to find and serve Sheriff Rainey. Despite his misgivings, he agreed.
We drove back to the courthouse, figuring that with Yankee troublemakers in town perhaps the “High Sheriff” (all sheriffs in Mississippi are given that mandatory adjective) would now be in his office.
I took the subpoenas for Rainey and Price and walked into the sheriff’s office. Sure enough they were there. I knew he and Price were big, but now my perception of their size was visceral and intimidating. I felt like a foolish swimmer getting too close to gators. I was pretty close to the perfect intruder, challenging their authority on their turf.
I tendered a subpoena to Deputy Price.
“Get that f—king thing out of my face,” he barked.
I told him that as a matter of law, he was served despite the fact that he would not take the subpoena tendered.
Then I turned to Rainey. He glowered at me.
“Sheriff, I have a subpoena for you to appear in federal court in Meridian tomorrow.”
I tendered the subpoena.
He didn’t look at it.
“Where you from, boy?”
“New York.” It was the absolute worst possible answer. New York was perceived as the epicenter of the civil rights lawyers’ invasion and all things alien to Mississippi.
“I don’t know how they do things where you’re from, but here we do things according to law and order. I’m going to arrest you for impersonating a federal officer.”
I was stunned, but managed to respond. “Sheriff, I believe you are thinking of a summons which must usually be served by a federal marshal. This is a subpoena seeking your attendance at court tomorrow. All that is required is that I be over eighteen and not interested in the action.”
“You’re under arrest.”
Though he had clearly decided to arrest me, he seemed slightly tentative. Rather than lock me in a jail cell, he put me in a room by myself and shut the door. From the room, I could hear some of what transpired outside, and I heard the sheriff clearly enough to realize that he was talking to his lawyer or the FBI.
His concern was probably triggered by the fact that a week or two earlier, the Supreme Court had remanded United States v. Price. This was the federal criminal indictment of Rainey, Price, and others who were charged with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the three murdered civil rights workers two years earlier. He and Price were going to stand trial, a rare occurrence for law enforcement officers in Mississippi.
The state had not moved against them for the murders. The federal government had moved, but there was no statute specifying murder of a civil rights worker as murder. The generic statute criminalizing conspiracies to violate civil rights was the most powerful statute in the federal arsenal, but it only carried a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment at that time.
I got the drift of the conversation from hearing Rainey’s end.
“But, but. . . . He just came in here and. . . .” It’s a pretty safe bet that the person on the other end was suggesting that he had enough on his plate without a bogus arrest of a white Yankee civil rights lawyer.
I remained in the room.
Meanwhile, my partner in the car started the fail safe system. If a lawyer on detail did not come back in a half hour under suspicious circumstances, this fail-safe system was triggered. I was not to reemerge from the courthouse for over two hours. My partner called our group’s headquarters in Jackson. They in turn called the FBI to report my absence. My best guess is that the FBI, in light of the reinstated indictments, probably called Rainey’s lawyer. The lawyer probably called Rainey rather than the other way around. (Historical note: The FBI was not the friend of the civil rights movement. If you have seen Gene Hackman in the movie Mississippi Burning, erase it from your memory; it is not history.)
On the one hand, I was under arrest by Sheriff Rainey. On the other hand, I knew my group’s fail safe system had kicked in. And I’d heard Rainey very much on the defensive with the person on the phone.
Though reason seemed to have prevailed, Rainey was not going to go quietly. He kept me in the room for nearly three hours, in no way indicating that he had relented.
Finally, he came in and announced, in a speech mixed with various facesaving phrases, that he was going to let me go.
I walked out of the courthouse to my partner, who was patiently waiting in the car.
We drove out of town on the narrow two-lane road that led to Jackson.
The sun was setting on the horizon directly ahead of us. This was the hill country, and the road was like a gentle roller coaster. A few miles out of town, as we came over one crest, we could see to the next crest. And there, against the backdrop of the setting sun, were the images of three cars parked abreast. It looked like a roadblock.
My heart sank. We were mindful that the Neshoba Three were not murdered in jail or in the town but rather after they were allowed to leave town. Our hearts pounding, neither of us spoke of what we were both thinking.
A few moments later, the car in the middle, which had been in our westbound lane, disappeared. This seemed curious.
Then the two remaining cars (still hundreds of yards away) seemed to begin driving toward us, the one on the right was actually driving on the shoulder to our lane. This was still worrisome.
Then the car on the shoulder still descending on the next hill ahead drove off the shoulder, across our lane and into the oncoming lane. This was most curious, but my anxiety level dropped.
As the car that had been on the shoulder passed us, we saw two white boys laughing. They paid us no mind, nor did those in the car behind them.
We were perplexed but greatly relieved. A mile or so later, we overtook a car driving slowly occupied by a number of black persons. We passed it. Then I remembered a story I had been told by a native white Mississippian. Evidently, it was considered great sport for rowdy young white people upon seeing a slow moving car with black occupants to drive across the oncoming lane in front of the oncoming car and over the shoulder in an effort to scare the occupants. I believe that’s what we experienced.
After this day’s events, my partner said that all the time he worked undercover in East Germany, he had never been as scared as that day.
As for me, I said that I would probably never be that scared again. Fifty years later, that is still the case.