Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Synopsis

This is the first--and the only authorized--biography of Elbert Parr Tuttle (1897-1996), the judge who led the federal court with jurisdiction over most of the Deep South through the most tumultuous years of the civil rights revolution. By the time Tuttle became chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he had already led an exceptional life. He had cofounded a prestigious law firm, earned a Purple Heart in the battle for Okinawa in World War II, and led Republican Party efforts in the early 1950s to establish a viable presence in the South. But it was the intersection of Tuttle's judicial career with the civil rights movement that thrust him onto history's stage.

When Tuttle assumed the mantle of chief judge in 1960, six years had passed since Brown v. Board of Education had been decided but little had changed for black southerners. In landmark cases relating to voter registration, school desegregation, access to public transportation, and other basic civil liberties, Tuttle's determination to render justice and his swift, decisive rulings neutralized the delaying tactics of diehard segregationists--including voter registrars, school board members, and governors--who were determined to preserve Jim Crow laws throughout the South.

Author Anne Emanuel maintains that without the support of the federal courts of the Fifth Circuit, the promise of Brown might have gone unrealized. Moreover, without the leadership of Elbert Tuttle and the moral authority he commanded, the courts of the Fifth Circuit might not have met the challenge.

Excerpt

The hard truth of our cultural and constitutional history is that nowhere was it written that the civil rights revolution led by Martin Luther King Jr. would succeed. The movement cost its members more sacrifice and caused more terror than we care to remember. Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence held long enough and firmly enough to give the movement a moral imperative that resonated throughout the country, but its hold was not complete and was always fragile. Without the support of the federal courts of the Fifth Circuit, it is entirely possible that the promise of Brown would have gone unrealized, that the back of Jim Crow would remain unbroken. Without the leadership of Elbert Tuttle and the moral authority he commanded, the courts of the Fifth Circuit might not have met the challenge.

In December 1960, in a remarkable and fortuitous accident of history, Elbert Tuttle became the chief judge of the federal court with jurisdiction over most of the Deep South. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit covered six states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Ordinarily, the men who sat on the Fifth Circuit were men of the region, steeped in its peculiar and pernicious history. Elbert Tuttle was not. With his wife and infant son, he had moved to Atlanta in 1923 at the age of twenty-five, a young lawyer who had fallen in love with a strong-willed Georgia girl and followed her home.

One lesson of Tuttle’s life is that exposure to diversity matters. Born in California, he lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Nogales, Arizona, on the border with Mexico before moving to Hawaii at the age of ten. In Hawaii the Tuttles lived on Oahu, where Elbert and his older brother, Malcolm, enrolled in the Punahou School. Unlike perhaps any other American school of that era, Punahou was racially and ethnically integrated; Tuttle studied and played alongside native Hawaiians as well as schoolmates of Chinese, Japanese, Philippine, and Portuguese ancestry.

From his earliest days in Georgia, Tuttle saw Jim Crow segregation as the unjust, oppressive apartheid it was. He had harbored political ambitions since his high school years, but in 1920s Georgia there was only one . . .

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