Obituary: John Minor Wisdom

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WHEN THE definitive history of the American civil rights movement is written, John Minor Wisdom and his fellow reformers on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal should be granted a chapter to themselves.

Congress and the Supreme Court in Washington delivered the historic laws and rulings of desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. But it was Wisdom and his colleagues who made sure they were implemented where it mattered - in the Deep South, the heart of the 5th Circuit's jurisdiction.

They were four such judges: Wisdom himself, Elbert Tuttle of Atlanta, Georgia; John Brown of Houston, Texas; and Richard Rives of Montgomery, Alabama. All but Rives were Republicans. Together they were known to their enemies as "The Four", a term coined by a furious dissenting judge who accused them of destroying the old South before his eyes.

Wisdom saw matters differently: "The 5th Circuit prevented a a second civil war," he once said. "If we hadn't made people obey the laws of this country, I think there would have been a lot more people killed, a lot more people hurt."

And make them obey the Four did, with a string of momentous opinions, often written by Wisdom. Some implemented the Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education ruling of 1954 which desegregated American schools. Others gave blacks equal voting rights to whites. Others placed blacks on juries, and removed discrimination in the workplace. "We desegregated every place that could be desegregated: buses, hotels, rest-aurants, parks, bar-rooms and athletic contests," he would later recall.

Wisdom was responsible for the famous opinion which permitted James Meredith to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962, the first black to do so. Arguably his most important ruling came six years later. Most courts held that the Constitution did not order integration but simply banned discrimination. Wisdom argued however in US v Jefferson that Southern ways were so entrenched that without efforts to remove the effects of past segregation, the black American's lot would not improve. In other words, affirmative action.

The South and conservatives in his own party never forgave him. At first the intimidation was crude: boxes of hate mail; two of Wisdom's dogs were poisoned, a rattlesnake was thrown into his courtyard. But he refused even to have his phone number unlisted. Later, as a leading Republican jurist, he was a natural candidate for the Supreme Court when a vacancy arose in 1969. But President Richard Nixon looked elsewhere after John Mitchell, the Attorney General, dismissed Wisdom as "a damned left-winger".

Such was the price of seeking to reform a system of which he was the privileged product. His father belonged to the old Democratic establishment of New Orleans - a cotton broker and businessman who would proudly tell his son how in 1870 he had walked in Robert E. Lee's funeral cortege. Mortimer Wisdom became a prominent member of the White League which opposed the integrated city administration set up after the Civil War.

John Wisdom might have been expected to follow a similar path. But the decisive break came as a law student, when he joined the Republican party in protest at the "dictatorship" of Louisiana's populist Governor, Huey "Kingfisher" Long. In 1952 Wisdom was a key Southern organiser in Dwight Eisenhower's Presidential campaign. His reward was the seat on the 5th Circuit, which he held for two decades. In 1977 he became a "senior judge", semi-retired, but in fact continuing to hear cases into his nineties.

Cruelly, he lived long enough to watch some of the changes he had helped secure wilt under attack. Subtly and not so subtly, school integration is being rolled back; increasingly, affirmative action is being rejected or circumscribed by the courts. But his name will endure, both as recipient in 1993 of the Presidential Medal for Freedom, and on the front of the 5th Circuit building in New Orleans, which was renamed the following year in his honour.

John Minor Wisdom, judge: born New Orleans 17 May 1905; married 1931 Bonnie Stewart Mathews (two daughters, and one son deceased); died New Orleans 15 May 1999.