UNLIKELY HEROES: The Southern Judges Who Made the Civil Rights Revolution by Jack Bass

UNLIKELY HEROES: The Southern Judges Who Made the Civil Rights Revolution

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KIRKUS REVIEW

While the Supreme Court represented a judicial command post where the ultimate decisions were made, the Circuit Courts were on the front lines of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s; and no court was more embattled than the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals--which then included Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Bass, coauthor of The Transformation of Southern Polities, gives little sense of the turmoil or the give-and-take; but his straightforward, bench-high view of events generates its own interest. As he explains, since the Supreme Court reviews only two-to-three percent of appeals courts' rulings, their decisions become the definitive interpretations of federal law in the states. When the Supreme Court issued its Brown ruling in 1954, it fell upon the Fifth Circuit to see that the Supreme Court's intentions were carried out. Bass centers on the main judges of that court: Elbert Tuttle, Richard Rives, John Minor Wisdom, and John Brown--along with Frank Johnson, who joined the Fifth Circuit later but worked with it for 24 years as a District judge. With the exception of Rives, they shared a Republican background which, in the then fiercely Democratic South, gave them a certain, crucial independence. Bass follows the group through such pivotal cases as the Montgomery bus boycott (decided by a panel of three judges in which Rives and Johnson held sway), and others involving reapportionment of state legislatures, voting rights, school desegregation, etc. He shows men who lived up to their responsibility and often acted with great courage (though more biographical background would have been welcome). The inevitable result, however, is a view of the civil rights movement that mistakes the scene of the battles--the courts--for the protagonists in the war; these judges didn't (per the subtitle) ""make"" the civil rights ""revolution,"" they steered forces that were fighting it out in the society as a whole. Bass' story is a valuable addition to both the history of the civil rights struggle and the history of the judiciary in the political life of the nation, but it needs that double context to be fully appreciated.

Pub Date: June 25th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster