The struggle for civil rights
By Charles J. Merten
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy told the country on national TV that justice demanded legislation to ensure the civil rights of all Americans. The next day Medgar Evers was murdered by a Klan member. On June 19, Kennedy’s legislation was introduced in Congress. On June 21, he summoned 250 prominent ABA lawyers to the White House and urged them to provide legal assistance to civil rights workers and blacks throughout South so that the violence we had all seen on TV in Birmingham might be reduced. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was founded as a result of that meeting. Portland lawyer Cliff Carlson was in Mississippi in 1965 as a Lawyers Committee volunteer. In the fall of 1966, he called me. 'They have no lawyers. They need lawyers. Will you go?'
After three years as a prosecutor, I knew from experience that the legal system was not the friend of the poor and unrepresented, let alone the oppressed. Cliff said that after Freedom Summer white Mississippi lawyers had stopped representing blacks out of fear of Klan reprisal, and there were only two black lawyers in the state. My wife and I recalled, as best as we could, JFK’s speech to the nation in June of 1963, which had prompted her to join thousands of others for Freedom Summer in 1964. President Kennedy said:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities…. One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation … will not be fully free until all its citizens are free…. Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise…. The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand…. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
I agreed to go. I arrived in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 30, 1966, and worked for the Lawyers Committee until December 23. In hindsight, the legal work I actually performed in Mississippi was no different than some of the more routine Legal Aid cases I handled in Portland after leaving the DA’s office — drunk driving, welfare eligibility, licensing applications. Unlike some other Oregon lawyers who volunteered, I had no high-profile case. But in 1966, rendering even routine legal services on behalf of any black person in Mississippi made you a foot soldier in the revolution President Kennedy spoke of and which was ongoing when I arrived.
The Southern Courier, a black-owned weekly newspaper in Jackson that advocated for civil rights, tracked the revolution and conflict in detail. Its four issues between Nov. 12 and Dec. 3, 1966, reported the following:
A white man shot and killed a black man who ran for a county office in Macon, Ala. The white was granted a change of venue from Macon County (which had a 2–1 black majority in its jury pool) to Lee County, which had only a token of one or two blacks in its jury pool. The judge said he felt he could not guarantee that civil rights workers and sympathetic blacks would not show up on a Macon County trial jury.
An SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) worker was fined $350 for a traffic ticket and sent to jail when he could not pay. His wife was held in contempt and sent to jail for shouting out, during the trial, that the sheriff was lying. His white lawyer was arrested the next day and jailed on a charge of practicing law in Alabama without a license.1
Stokely Carmichael, chairman of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), was arrested and convicted in Selma for 'inciting a riot' during the Selma marches.
A black deputy sheriff in Mississippi stopped a young black man for drunk driving, and beat him with a club while two white state patrolmen held the man’s arms. He died two hours later.
The white man who attempted to kill James Meredith in 1963 was given two years in jail by a white Mississippi judge.
Black elementary teachers who engaged in civil rights marches on their own time were complaining of retaliation by their white school boards.
In Philadelphia, Miss., home of Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price, two black deputies kicked a young black man in the eye after arresting him for drunk driving, causing serious damage.
A statewide school desegregation trial started in Montgomery, and the first thing the federal district judge did was hold the NAACP in contempt for refusing to answer interrogatories seeking the names and addresses of its Alabama members.
A white man shot and killed a black man who was looking at his car for damage after the white man bumped it from the rear. The black had run for office to a local agricultural committee. A white jury acquitted the shooter.
'Night riders' near Vicksburg, Mississippi, hit a 13-year-old black girl with a shotgun blast. She was the daughter of the local chapter head of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. She lost an eye.
Last, but not least, the Santa at Gaylord’s Discount Center in Chickasaw, Alabama, refused to look at a black five-year-old boy when he told Santa what he wanted for Christmas, and refused to give him candy when the boy asked for it — but freely gave white children candy even when they didn’t ask.
Clarence Dunnivant, a black lawyer from New York, was another volunteer that December. We were shocked and sobered by the hatred we ran into when we worked together — looks that could kill, refusals of service, insults. Initially, we were tentative and looked over our shoulders. After a few days, we began acting like real lawyers — prudent but firm, and no fear.
My photo ID as a Multnomah County deputy district attorney worked wonders there. I brought it for safety reasons — the Klan might hesitate. It turned out to be a sword. The Lawyers Committee had not been able to get any lawyer into the notoriously brutal state penitentiary at Parchman. I was told to go and interview two young men recently convicted of murder. Their parents believed they were being beaten. I phoned the warden, identified myself as a deputy DA from Portland, and asked if I could come to interview the two 'convicts' in question. He agreed and set a date. I arrived, walked into his office, and presented my card and ID. We chatted for 30 minutes, the way southerners do. Finally, he asked if I was investigating a murder. I told him I was here on behalf of 'the committee' to see if these 'boys' were okay. Everyone in Mississippi knew what 'the committee' was. The warden picked up my ID and stared at it for five minutes. Then he turned to a guard and said, 'Bring the bastards in,' and left. I got the interviews.2
After that experience I was sent to the corporation commissioner’s office to examine its books and identify new corporations that might have Klan connections, such as 'Desoto County Coon Hunting Club.' Again, the Lawyers Committee had had no luck in gaining access to the records, and was put off by constant excuses of one kind or another. I walked into the state house, presented my ID and told the clerk I was conducting an investigation. I was given a table, coffee and dozens of books to look at.3
That ID also helped me with the Mississippi Highway Patrol. A black mechanic, who sought a renewal of his license to inspect cars for the state, was denied the renewal because he refused to give a white Highway Patrol administrator whiskey in order to get his license approved. A hearing was set before A.D. Morgan, chief of the Highway Patrol. I introduced myself and showed him my ID. We talked about the differences between Oregon and Mississippi in weather, crime, fishing and crops. He volunteered that there were race problems in Mississippi, including beatings of blacks by whites. He laid the overall problem in the state to a lack of education for both races. I had my client stick to the facts, and tell his story about the whiskey. Morgan then called his subordinate in to hear his story. The subordinate had all the physical signs of an alcoholic. Morgan asked about the whiskey. The man confessed and dashed out of the room. My client got his inspection license reinstated.
While there, it was impossible to make much sense of what was happening. Too much happened too fast. Forces, efforts and groups were inconsistent and in opposition. Older blacks were hesitant to do anything that risked losing whatever privileges they felt they had. Younger black men frequently were so hostile to whites that I and other volunteers were met with anger and rejection. White civil rights workers in the field were both terrified by the violence visited upon them and their friends, and determined to stick it out and do some good for the black population, particularly the kids.
In many counties, virtually no blacks were registered to vote, and the local sheriff and county politicians ran the counties like plantations. In a few counties, large numbers of blacks were registered, and things were quite different there. The white power structure solicited the black vote and was attentive to the needs of black voters.
White prosecutors pretended they hadn’t heard of the Miranda decision of July 1966, but privately told me and other volunteers that we should contact certain blacks being held in jail because they were being mistreated. Frustrated when a local sheriff 30 miles from Jackson lied to me three days in a row when saying that I could see a prisoner, I raised my voice and threatened to go to the DA. The deputy placed one hand on my shoulder and the other on his revolver and pushed me out the door. On the other hand, a white barber 70 miles from Jackson took a six-inch fishing knife from his friend and sent him away when the friend figured out that I was an 'outside agitator' connected to the picketing of a grocery store by black kids and SCLC workers.
The one constant I did find, however, was that whether I talked to black or white, every Mississippian I spoke with had family stories about the trauma of the Civil War. Bullet holes in homes and stores were pointed out to me; tales of rape and pillage were told to me by both races. I left Mississippi knowing that the white legal and political stranglehold was dissolving, but that social acceptance and tolerance between the races was a long way off.
The Mississippi experience was a defining moment for Merten. After returning to Portland, he soon left the district attorney’s office to work for Multnomah County Legal Aid, becoming its director in 1969. In 1971, he and three other attorneys formed Oregon’s first public interest law firm. He has twice been awarded the ACLU of Oregon’s E.B. MacNaughton Award for preserving civil liberties. In August of this year, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association presented Merten with its Public Justice Award for leading a successful legal effort to save the lives of 100 schizophrenics who faced eviction from housing for the mentally ill due to state budget cuts. Merten is an employment law specialist, practicing in Portland.
This article is reprinted with permission from the OSB Civil Rights Section’s newsletter, September 2003.
1. In 1965 the Lawyers Committee made an agreement with the Mississippi Bar and the Mississippi Supreme Court. Committee lawyers were allowed to practice in Mississippi without a state license. The unstated benefit to local lawyers was, of course, that they were absolved of guilt for not representing the oppressed.
2. Parchman is about 120 miles north of Jackson. It was already dark when I left the prison. Klan cars, with their whip antennas for two-way radios, followed me in relays all the way to Jackson. High gear in my rental car inexplicably did not work, although it was fine on the trip to the prison. I drove in second gear all the way back. Coincidence or sabotage? Who knows.
3. Several years later, a Lawyers Committee staff person told me that the hundreds of names I jotted down helped in a successful effort to dissolve Klan corporations.
© 2003 Charles J. Merten