By Bill Minor
JACKSON – No decades-old federal building in these parts seems safe from the federal budget axe these days – even the great old federal courthouse in Meridian where some of Mississippi’s most notable civil rights events unfolded last century.
A story in The New York Times said Meridian’s 79-year-old federal courthouse is one of six on the government’s chopping block. The crunch in the nation’s budget is partly to blame. It seems a judicial conference body made up of senior judges with authority to close less essential courthouses which have no permanent sitting judge in smaller cities.
Meridian is just not big enough to avoid the conference’s hit list. Now folks in the East Mississippi town are waiting for the axe to drop.
That courtroom is where James Meredith on May 31, 1961, made his first public appearance in what would become a momentous bid to break the color barrier at the University of Miississippi.
Representing Meredith in his Meridian courthouse appearance, and throughout the prolonged legal battle in Jackson, was Constance Baker Motley, the tall, sturdy NAACP legal counsel who had flown down from New York. It must be noted that in the Jackson courtroom where Meredith was grilled relentlessly for weeks by state attorneys, a 40-foot wide mural painted in 1935 depicting blacks in subservient roles amid cotton fields provided the backdrop. That Jackson federal courthouse building was vacated last year when a new one opened.
Isn’t it historically coincidental that a 50-year observance of Meredith’s enrollment in Ole Miss is being marked in a three-day program this very weekend?
On Oct. 20, 1967, in the Meridian courtroom, seven of 18 Klansmen charged in the Neshoba County lynch-style slaying of three young civil rights workers were convicted (one more pleaded guilty) for the first time in state history under post-Civil War civil rights criminal laws. John Doar, the legendary Justice Department civil rights attorney whose six-year presence in Mississippi was crucial to enforcement of federal civil rights and voting rights laws, prosecuted the Klansmen.
Notably, five years earlier, Doar had spearheaded James Meredith’s prolonged battle to enroll at Ole Miss. Several times he had confronted Mississippi’s Gov. Ross Barnett when Barnett tried to defy court orders to enroll the black student. When the 28-year-old black man finally was registered, it was Doar who accompanied him to the institution. Doar, now 92, was to be an honored speaker on the Monday program marking Meredith’s enrollment but could not attend because of illness.
One day during the pre-trial proceedings of the Neshoba case, Alton Wayne Roberts of Meridian, a 300-pound former boxer believed to be a triggermen in the murders, slugged CBS photographer Laurens Pierce when he attempted to catch Roberts entering the courthouse. I was one of the few newsmen close by who witnessed the incident. When Roberts sued the network on grounds that Pierce assaulted him with a handle attached to the camera, I was called to testify. Wanting to avoid any lengthy litigation, CBS paid a small settlement of the case. Roberts, who got one of the maximum jail terms in the Neshoba case, is deceased.
Just another dark chapter in Mississippi’s history.
Independent columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.