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“The 5th Circuit Four” Who Ushered In Desegregation

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 2, 2022 3:02 am

“The 5th Circuit Four” Who Ushered In Desegregation

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 2, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the fascinating subject of 14-year-old Max Grinstein's winning paper at the National History Day competition!

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Talk to an agent today. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories. We tell stories about everything here on this show, but our favorite subject is American history. Every year, more than 500,000 middle and high school students participate in something called National History Day, a worldwide competition where students create an original history project of their choice.

And today, Alex Cortez brings us the story of a 14-year-old winner of the Middle School Paper Competition. Max Greenstein has participated in National History Day for three years, and he's chosen some fascinating topics. My first project was about the Red Cross and the Holocaust.

Famously, the Red Cross almost ignored all of the atrocities being committed by Nazi Germany against the Jews and the Roma and a lot of other groups. So that was an interesting story. The theme that year was conflict and compromise.

The second project I did, the theme was triumph and tragedy. So I wrote about Bobby Fischer. Bobby Fischer was a famous American chess player in the 70s and 60s. He's widely considered to be one of, if not the best chess players of history.

Famously, in 1972, he beat Boris Spassky, who was a Soviet chess player. And that was a large global relations moment, a triumph for the U.S., but ultimately he had very severe schizophrenia. Although he was a Jew, he was a huge anti-Semite. He was included in an encyclopedia published by a rabbi, but he sent a very angry letter to this rabbi saying that he didn't want to be included because he wasn't a Jew.

Also, after 9-11, he called into a Filipino radio station and was talking about how the Jews, he thought, caused 9-11. The theme this year was breaking barriers in history. So with that theme, I decided to write about the Fifth Circuit Four. The Fifth Circuit Four were a group of four judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Deep South.

At the time, it stretched from Texas to Florida. The Fifth Circuit Four were notable for enforcing famous Supreme Court decisions like Brown versus the Board of Education. And without the Fifth Circuit Four enforcing these decisions, I think that they would have largely been ignored in the segregated Deep South. One of the most staunch segregationists of the entire Fifth Circuit was named Ben Cameron.

And Ben Cameron decided to give the Fifth Circuit Four the name the Fifth Circuit Four because in the Bible, there's a story about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Ben Cameron believed that in helping to integrate the South, the Fifth Circuit Four were each bringing an end to the segregationist world. Max first wrote about the Supreme Court's Brown versus Board decision that ended segregation in schools and the challenge of the ruling not declaring a specific plan for desegregation. Mansfield is near Fort Worth, Texas, and it had a segregated school system. There was no high school for African Americans.

So every day, students would have to be bussed an hour each way to Fort Worth, which was obviously very arduous for the students and their families. So they sued to integrate Mansfield High School. On the night that the Fifth Circuit ordered that Mansfield High School students should be allowed to enter to the school to register, there were massive riots throughout the city with KKK hoods. There was an effigy of an African American that was burned on the facade of Mansfield High School. Ultimately, all of the African American students and their families were too intimidated to enter into Mansfield High School to register because of all of the violence. And NAACP membership in Mansfield fell dramatically because of white racist intimidation.

So it was one of the Fifth Circuit's first cases of enforcing Brown, but it wasn't necessarily their most successful. So a lot of people know about James Meredith. He was a university student. He'd also had a brief stint in the armed forces, and he wanted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss.

And he was highly qualified. He had credits from other accredited institutions. So ostensibly, there was no reason for the University of Mississippi not to accept him, except that the University of Mississippi had a racist admissions policy that required all students to submit a recommendation to to submit a recommendation from an alumni. And since James Meredith and a lot of other African American students didn't know any alumni willing to recommend them because no African Americans had ever gone to the school, James Meredith couldn't be admitted. So he sued the university. And the Fifth Circuit ordered in an injunction that the University of Mississippi admit him. And on the night that James Meredith was supposed to go to the registrar's office, there were massive riots, racist riots throughout the school. And he had to be escorted by an entourage of armed U.S. marshals and National Guard soldiers. And then famously, the then governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, held himself against the door of the University of Mississippi after leading the protest outside so that James Meredith could not enter physically the registrar's office. And you're listening to Max Greenstein tell the story of James Meredith and, of course, the story of the four judges who helped usher in desegregation in the Deep South.

When we come back, more of this story, this tragic story and the story of the great original sin of this country, which, of course, is racism and slavery here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. And we continue with our American stories and with Max Greenstein's story on his winning National History Day paper about the Fifth Circuit, the four judges who helped usher in desegregation in the deep south. We return to Max on black student James Meredith trying to register at Ole Miss, but the racist governor Ross Barnett was literally blocking the door. He had to be forcibly removed by the soldiers accompanying James Meredith. And although James Meredith now was a student, the battle was far from over. The Fifth Circuit held Ross Barnett, the governor, in contempt of court because he was trying to stop an injunction, a federal injunction for James Meredith to enter the school.

So the case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Fifth Circuit's ruling that Ross Barnett was in contempt of court and he was ordered to pay a large fine. So after the Voting Rights Act was passed in the early 60s, making racial discrimination in voting illegal, the state of Louisiana updated their voting requirements to register to vote so that it wouldn't seem segregationist. They had a new test where you had to be able to interpret any section of the US Constitution given to you at random. But what the state of Louisiana did is they systematically trained registrars to give African Americans much more difficult passages to explain than white registrants so that, you know, statistically less African Americans would get the right to vote. So the US Justice Department sued because it was blatantly in violation of the Voting Rights Act. And then the state of Louisiana updated their voting requirements.

They said, so if you don't want us to give people passages, we can just pick them at random. So they would have a hat at the registrar's office to get the right to vote, and it would have passages in it. But the Fifth Circuit said that the state of Louisiana couldn't do this because it was the state of Louisiana couldn't do this because both tests, the one before the Justice Department sued and the one after, were racist because all of the white electorate who had registered to vote prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act were exempt.

So they didn't have to take any test. So the entire thing about tests and explaining the Constitution was abolished by the Fifth Circuit for Nicholas Kotzenbach was an attorney general. And he did say, if you hadn't had those judges on the Fifth Circuit, you would have had much more in the way of demonstrations, violence, repressions, revolution.

And that may be too strong a word, but it was moving in that direction. I think that another quote, perhaps even more poignant, was by Ramsey Clark, who was the attorney general under LBJ. And he said that the Fifth Circuit did something that the Supreme Court couldn't do, that they brought racial change to the Deep South a generation sooner than the Supreme Court could have done it. I was curious how Max heard about this heroic Fifth Circuit for in the first place. I had never heard of them before his paper.

I was on a family vacation in New Orleans, which isn't that far of a drive from Houston where I'm from. And I noticed that the federal courthouse there is called the John Minor Wisdom Courthouse. So I read a plaque outside about who John Minor Wisdom was. And I always thought that was an interesting story, because a lot of the other three judges, Brown, Tettle and Reeves, had experiences in their prior lives that led them to take an integrationist stance. But John Minor Wisdom was really in like the upper echelon of the New Orleans social circles. His father was a very wealthy cotton broker in New Orleans. I thought it was interesting that John Minor Wisdom was in such an integrationist judge.

So I decided that in fitting with the theme this year, Breaking Barriers in History, I would write about him and his colleagues. John Brown was from the Midwest, and he went to school in Michigan, went to university in Michigan. The town where he was from in the Midwest only had one African American who was his barber. So while he did grow up around racism, it wasn't as large and the segregation wasn't as observable as it was in the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit. So after he went to law school, he moved to Houston, Texas, where I'm from, to specialize in admiralty law.

That's one of the largest types of law that the Fifth Circuit covered then and still does cover about disputes over trading, obviously, since Houston has a very large port. So once he was examining a African American witness in an admiralty dispute, and he addressed the witness, obviously, as you would by Mr., and there were gasps around the courtroom. A lot of the white observers and the other lawyers were very surprised, because at the time, most lawyers wouldn't give African Americans that dignity of being Mr. To me, the most interesting event in one of the judges' pasts was Richard Reeves, the judge on the floor from Alabama, appointed by Truman. Richard Reeves, obviously, grew up in Alabama around a lot of segregation. But in World War II, his son went away to fight in the Pacific Front. And when his son came back, he recounted to his father all of the stories about how valiantly and heroically African Americans had given up their lives to fight for the U.S. So Richard Reeves started to reconsider the segregation that he had grown up around. And in the late 40s, Richard Reeves' son, the one who was a soldier, died in a car crash. So Richard Reeves decided then to accept any federal judicial appointment. He wasn't going to at first because he was going to start a law firm with his son.

But he then decided to accept any federal judicial appointment to uphold the legacy and the lessons that his son had taught him. His son's grave was desecrated by the KKK after his father became an integrationist judge. There were bombings. There were bombings of their houses, and people shot at their houses with shotguns. John Minor Wisdom received so many hateful calls and death threats throughout the entire night, his phone was constantly ringing, that he had to completely disconnect his landline.

And he gave instructions to his daughter, who lived nearby, that if they needed anything, they would just come to their house. And John Minor Wisdom's dogs were repeatedly poisoned, also by the KKK. I think that one of the important instruments that allowed the Fifth Circuit 4 to take such a controversial stance in the South about integration and segregation was that they were appointed for life.

Because if they were elected, then a lot of politicians would be concerned about making decisions that they thought would help get them reelected. So in the case of a judge from the Deep South, it would probably be segregationist decisions because of how segregationist the Deep South then was. But since the Fifth Circuit 4 were all appointed for life, they were able to take as controversial of a stance as they wanted to, because the only way that they could have been ousted from office was impeachment, and they didn't do anything impeachable. And you've been listening to Max Greenstein tell the story of four judges who helped usher in desegregation in the Deep South.

And it is so true. It's our Constitution itself that allows for these things. The majority cannot rule, and our judges are protected by lifetime appointments. And that is the critical role that the Constitution itself plays in all of these things. To remedy the sins of the past, we turn to our own most sacred document to do it. The story of four courageous judges and how they helped shape and change this great country and fix and repair the original sin of racism and slavery.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-02 04:27:43 / 2022-12-02 04:35:18 / 8

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