JACKSON – On Friday, the state held a dedication ceremony for the Carroll Gartin Justice Building – a 162,000 square-foot neoclassical structure located just northwest of the state Capitol.
“This is a beacon of justice for all in the state of Mississippi,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said at the ceremony.
The building houses the Mississippi Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and other judiciary functions. It has been in use since 2008, though partially under construction during part of that time. The structure was decked out in its full splendor on Friday.
Two days later in the state’s capital city a week-long slate of activities honoring the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders kicked off.
Officially, the two events – the dedication of the state’s justice building and a reunion of people from across the country, including from right here in Mississippi, who sacrificed for equal rights for all Mississippians – are not related.
In reality, though, the two events should be one and the same. After all, the Carroll Gartin Justice Building is supposed to represent fair and equal justice for all. That is what the Freedom Riders were trying to accomplish in 1961.
But that is not what happened in 1961 when more than 300 people were arrested in Jackson and held in maximum security at foreboding Parchman Penitentiary for doing nothing more than riding a bus or train while demanding equal rights. Among those arrested and held at Parchman was Hezekiah Watkins, a 13-year-old Jackson boy.
On Friday at the dedication, James Graves, who was the third black to serve on the state Supreme Court since Reconstruction, and now a U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by President Barack Obama – recognized all the dignitaries at the event. Graves had the packed courtroom in stitches as he interspersed jokes with the routine introductions.
The introductions Graves made included Leslie King, also an African-American, whom Gov. Haley Barbour named to replace Graves on the state Supreme Court.
One black on the state Supreme Court and one on the 10-member Court of Appeals might not be ideal, but it is a far cry from 1961 and what the Freedom Riders endured.
In 1961, the state’s courts’ and laws’ intent was to deny equal rights. There was no effort to hide that fact. The state justice building in 1961 did not symbolize justice for a significant portion of the population. It took the federal government to intervene to garner that equal justice that the courts of Mississippi did not provide in 1961.
On Friday, Gov. Haley Barbour spoke of the importance of the judicial system in a civilized society.
Barbour said the difference in the United States of America and many other nations is that here we honor the rule of law. No matter what the differences, when the courts rule on that matter of law we accept the outcome even though we might not agree with it.
That is not what was happening in 1961. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional as was the segregation of the nation’s transportation system. Yet, in Mississippi those entities, like most of the rest of society, were still segregated.
That is why the Freedom Riders rode in 1961.
Their ride and arrests did not end that segregation, but spurred the federal government to act to finally force Mississippi, including its courts, to enforce the laws of the land – to provide equal justice for all.
On Sunday, Barbour apologized to the Freedom Riders who reconvened in Jackson for the treatment they received in 1961.
We also can thank them for helping make the Carroll Gartin Justice Building that was dedicated about 48 hours earlier a beacon where all Mississippians can expect equal treatment.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or email@example.com.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal