Jury Discrimination: The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and a Grassroots Fight for Racial Equality in Mississippi

Jury Discrimination: The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and a Grassroots Fight for Racial Equality in Mississippi

Jury Discrimination: The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and a Grassroots Fight for Racial Equality in Mississippi

Jury Discrimination: The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and a Grassroots Fight for Racial Equality in Mississippi

Synopsis

In 1906 a white lawyer named Dabney Marshall argued a case before the Mississippi Supreme Court demanding the racial integration of juries. He carried out a plan devised by Mississippi's foremost black lawyer of the time: Willis Mollison. Against staggering odds, and with the help of a friendly newspaper editor, he won. How Marshall and his allies were able to force the court to overturn state law and precedent, if only for a brief period, at the behest of the U.S. Supreme Court is the subject of Jury Discrimination, a book that explores the impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on America's civil rights history.

Christopher Waldrep traces the origins of Americans' ideas about trial by jury and provides the first detailed analysis of jury discrimination. Southerners' determination to keep their juries entirely white played a crucial role in segregation, emboldening lynchers and vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan. As the postbellum Congress articulated ideals of national citizenship in civil rights legislation, most importantly the Fourteenth Amendment, factions within the U.S. Supreme Court battled over how to read the amendment: expansively, protecting a variety of rights against a host of enemies, or narrowly, guarding only against rare violations by state governments. The latter view prevailed, entombing the amendment in a narrow interpretation that persists to this day.

Although the high court clearly denounced the overt discrimination enacted by state legislatures, it set evidentiary rules that made discrimination by state officers and agents extremely difficult to prove. Had these rules been less onerous, Waldrep argues, countless black jurors could have been seated throughout the nation at precisely the moment when white legislators and jurists were making and enforcing segregation laws. Marshall and Mollison's success in breaking through Mississippi law to get blacks admitted to juries suggests that legal reasoning plausibly founded on constitutional principle, as articulated by the Supreme Court, could trump even the most stubbornly prejudiced public opinion.

Excerpt

The cross-examination began with the basics. “Your name is P. C. Dowan?” the white lawyer asked. That was not quite right, and Pinkard C. Dowans pointed out that his name ended with an s. Pride in his name had brought Dowans to court in the first place. in 1909, when he testified, Dowans had been a grand lecturer of the Colored Knights of the Pythians for four years. Traveling from one Mississippi black fraternal organization to the next, Dowans helped formulate and spread the values that tied black fraternalists together. Dowans not only preached moral values, but he also made the contacts that allowed blacks across Mississippi to form social networks, organize collective identities, and pool resources to counter white efforts to disparage, oppress, and marginalize them.

Dowans was in court because he had been denounced as “unmanly, unchristian, and ungentlemanly…unfit to be a member of the Pythian and Calanthian Order” by the Calanthian Journal, a newspaper published by a fraternal organization called the Court of Calanthe. Fraternal organizations paid Dowans’s speaking fees based on their assessment of his moral character. the Calanthian Journal article appeared on November 28, 1908. Thereafter, Dowans’s speaking invitations dried up, cutting off his income. Dowans sued its sponsor, the Court of Calanthe.

When questioned by his own lawyer, Dowans had described himself as a fifty-year resident of Vicksburg and a former schoolteacher. He was, in short, a person worthy of respect with a reputation worth money.

Edward N. Scudder represented the Court of Calanthe. Born in 1861, Scudder had not fought in the Civil War, but at the time he confronted Dowans, he was serving in the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) as an assistant judge advocate general. Later he became a division commander and a member of the SCV’s executive council. the trial transcript of Dowans’s case described him as “Col. Scudder.” According to his daughter, he served . . .

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