Elbert Parr Tuttle

Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 376
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    Elbert Parr Tuttle
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4179-8
    Subjects: History, Law, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. CHAPTER ONE The Legal Lynching of John Downer
    (pp. 1-7)

    “Well, personally and frankly I think the boy with her screwed her.”¹

    In 1932 this blunt assessment brought a Macon, Georgia, federal courtroom to a stunned silence. Marion Williamson, a captain in the Georgia National Guard and a Decatur attorney, sat in the witness chair. He had spoken the unspeakable truth, and he had spoken it under oath. It would, as it turned out, make no difference. A white woman had accused a black man of rape, and he would die for it. Nothing could save John Downer from the electric chair, not even the best efforts of Elbert Tuttle,...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Great Migration
    (pp. 8-13)

    Elbert Parr Tuttle could trace his family line back ten generations, to April 1635, when the Planter left Gravesend, England, bound for Boston. On board were 117 passengers, including twenty-six-year-old William Tuttle, his twenty-three-year-old wife, Elizabeth, and their three small children: John, who was three and a half; Anne, who was two; and Thomas, who was only three months old. They arrived in Boston around the first of July. Two of William’s older brothers were also on board with their families. John, thirty-nine, sailed with his wife and seven children; he did not stay in the New World but instead...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Life Was a Breeze
    (pp. 14-25)

    The physical isolation of the Hawaiian Islands, the way their small surfaces sit surrounded by the vast ocean, made young Elbert Tuttle acutely aware of geography. Having the deposed queen of Hawaii, a woman of color, live around the corner made him acutely aware of politics.¹

    When the Tuttles arrived on Oahu, the public schools educated mostly Hawaiian children and the children of Asian laborers. For their sons, Guy and Margie chose the Punahou School, founded to educate the children of missionaries and already something of an elite academy. More than six decades later, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham would choose...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR College Years
    (pp. 26-30)

    The first year at Cornell—and for that matter every year at Cornell—was a busy one for Elbert. When he graduated four years later, his list of activities would take more than seven lines of fine type in a class where most lists ran two or three lines and only a couple required six. One classmate, Bill Ellis, vividly remembered seeing Elbert for the first time. Early in their freshmen year, they both attended a large student meeting. Ellis did not recall the issue at hand, only that it got out of control and produced a hot argument. “The...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Sara Sutherland
    (pp. 31-40)

    The summer of 1917, following their junior year, Malcolm and Elbert couldn’t afford the cost of returning to Hawaii. When Elbert’s fraternity brother Strawn Perry invited him to spend the summer with Strawn’s family in Jacksonville, Florida, Elbert accepted gratefully. Strawn’s father, the president of the Florida National Bank, arranged summer jobs for both boys at the bank. As soon as school let out, Elbert and Strawn traveled by boat from New York to Charleston, South Carolina, a two-day journey. They were met there by Strawn’s friend Charlie Murchison. Murchison later married Helen Spratt, who had hosted the Tuttle boys...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER SIX Founding a Law Firm and Raising a Family
    (pp. 41-51)

    Sara and the baby left for Atlanta on May 20, 1923. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Sara remembered, “but we had youth and confidence and love and Elbert had lots of ability, so we knew life would be good to us.” They left snow on the ground in Ithaca and arrived at a city in bloom. Elbert followed in early June, arriving just in time to take the Georgia bar exam. Before he left Ithaca, a package arrived; E. Smythe Gambrell, an Atlanta attorney for whom the Emory Law School would later be named, had sent Elbert...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Gearing Up for War
    (pp. 52-59)

    By the summer of 1941, Elbert and his best friend, Sara’s cousin Leckie Mattox, were already on active duty. Their Georgia National Guard infantry regiment was called up in September 1940. Shortly thereafter it was converted to a field artillery regiment and on February 28, 1941, posted to Fort Blanding, just south of Jacksonville, Florida. Before joining his regiment at Fort Blanding, Elbert reported for an advanced artillery course for field officers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. When he had been discharged from active duty in 1918, he had been sure he would never see Fort Sill again. Sara arrived that...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT The War Years
    (pp. 60-77)

    In late 1941 army surveyors scouting for locations for a post large enough to train multiple infantry divisions checked out a Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Blackstone, a small town in south-central Virginia. It did not take them long to realize they had found a site—Camp Pickett was all but perfect. It had enough land and enough water, and it connected by rail to mountain and coastal training sites. By December the army had cleared nearly forty-six thousand acres. On December 7, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Fort Pickett became a national priority. Construction sped up, and within...

  15. CHAPTER NINE Building a Republican Party in Georgia
    (pp. 78-85)

    When Elbert and Sara Tuttle moved to Atlanta in 1923, he was only twenty-six and had not yet affiliated himself with any political party. In Hawaii, where “a high sugar tariff meant prosperity for the Hawaiian sugar industry,” his parents had been Republicans. Upon arriving in Georgia, Tuttle noticed a singular irony. “I found that whereas I had left a place where all of the dark people were Democrats, I had arrived at a place where all of the dark people were Republicans.”¹

    Georgia was a one-party state, and the one party was the white Democratic Party. Because you had...

  16. CHAPTER TEN The 1952 Republican National Convention
    (pp. 86-99)

    In the fall of 1951, the big question was whether Dwight D. Eisenhower would accept a Republican nomination. The general remained above the fray. If he ran, he would be challenging Robert Taft, who had lost the nomination to Dewey in 1948. Dewey had suffered a surprising, devastating loss to Harry Truman. Now, four years later, Taft’s position was strong. The son of a president and himself a senator, Taft had positioned himself to take the nomination. No party regular was a serious threat to “Mr. Republican.” Earl Warren was a candidate, but Warren understood he had little chance unless...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Washington Years
    (pp. 100-116)

    Tuttle campaigned vigorously for Eisenhower in Georgia, but, to no one’s surprise, Adlai Stevenson carried the state. Ike carried the country, however, and he knew he owed his victory in no small part to the southern Republican strategists who had helped him win the nomination. Once elected, Eisenhower delegated the selection of most of his cabinet to his two most trusted advisors: Herbert Brownell and Lucius Clay. He claimed but one firm rule: no one who sought a position would be selected for it. Not a professional politician himself, Ike preferred men from outside government.¹

    For secretary of the treasury,...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE The Great Writ
    (pp. 117-127)

    Tuttle’s confirmation hearings were typical of the times. Seats on the circuit courts of appeals were understood to “belong” to certain states. If that state’s senators belonged to the president’s party, they would be consulted about appointments and their preferences weighted heavily. If they belonged to the opposition party, civility indicated that their opinion be formally sought by the committee—but it was of little import. Neither of the senators from Georgia was a Republican; for that matter, none of Georgia’s representatives in the House were Republican. As time wore on, Tuttle would realize how fortunate that was. In difficult...

  19. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Forming the Historic Fifth Circuit: Nine Men
    (pp. 128-152)

    When Elbert Tuttle returned to Atlanta to assume his seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he expected to serve out his years in peace and quiet. The Fifth Circuit had long been one of the busiest federal circuits in the nation. The work of the judges was steady, but it was not heavy, and it was carried out at the judge’s pace in the isolation of his chambers. Tuttle joked to friends in D.C. that he was going home “to retire” to the court. Instead, he found himself at the epicenter of one of...

  20. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Justice Is Never Simple: Brown I and II
    (pp. 153-167)

    Despite all of his years in Georgia and despite his considerable political insight, Elbert Tuttle badly misread the effect that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education would have. When he casually told a friend, “they’ll fall in line,” meaning the southern states would accept the mandate laid down by the court, he meant it.¹ In later years, he understood the miscalculation he had made. He had not anticipated that the political and social leaders of the South would defer to the demagogues, even join them. He thought responsible, thoughtful politicians would stand up and be counted...

  21. CHAPTER FIFTEEN From Plessy to Brown to Buses
    (pp. 168-173)

    On May 17, 1954 many observers thought that the decision in Brown I sounded the death knell of Jim Crow segregation. As it would turn out, they were correct, but Brown itself did not make that clear. Just as Charles Hamilton Houston and his colleagues at the NAACP had carefully honed in on education as the area where separate but equal was least defensible, the Supreme Court also carefully constricted the opinion to what had been argued. “Today,” the Court pointed out, “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Because of the importance of public...

  22. CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Desegregation of the University of Georgia
    (pp. 174-192)

    Richard Rives was sworn in as chief judge of the Fifth Circuit in 1959 at the age of sixty-four. A year later, he resigned, and Tuttle took his place. Although tradition indicated that he would serve until he reached the age of seventy, Rives explained that he had found the administrative work burdensome, more so because his wife suffered from poor health. Years later, Rives would admit another motivation—he admired Tuttle and thought him a likely candidate for the United States Supreme Court. Being chief judge, Rives calculated, would increase Tuttle’s chances of appointment.¹ Elbert Tuttle took office as...

  23. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Costs of Conscience
    (pp. 193-202)

    When Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes registered for classes at the University of Georgia in 1961, Brown had been on the books for more than six years. Precious little had changed in three key areas of civic life—education, public accommodations, and voting—but the pace was quickening. As prevalent as civil rights litigation was, it represented only a small fraction of the work of the circuit. Ironically, for a man who so often found himself explaining that he was not a tax attorney, the first opinion Tuttle authored as chief involved a corporate income tax question, specifically, how much...

  24. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Oxford, Mississippi: The Battleground
    (pp. 203-217)

    On January 20, 1961, the day after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president, James Meredith wrote the registrar of the University of Mississippi, requesting an application, a copy of the catalog, and “any other information that might be helpful to me.”¹ On January 26 he mailed his completed application. A twenty-seven-year-old native of Kosciusko, Mississippi, Meredith enclosed five certificates from residents of Attala County attesting to his good moral character. He explained that he could not provide five certificates from alumni of the university, as required, because “I am a Negro and all graduates of the school are white. Further,...

  25. CHAPTER NINETEEN The Fight for the Right to Vote
    (pp. 218-234)

    The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, was a hardwon result of the Civil War: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Its clarity notwithstanding, just as virtually no progress had been made on the education front in 1960, when Elbert Tuttle became chief judge of the circuit, no progress had been made on the voting rights front. Post-Reconstruction, from 1890 to 1900, seven southern states had adopted methods aimed at...

  26. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  27. CHAPTER TWENTY But for Birmingham
    (pp. 235-252)

    Late in his life, when Elbert Tuttle was asked to name the most significant cases he had decided, two always made the list: Holmes v. Danner, in which he ordered the desegregation of the University of Georgia, and the Birmingham schoolchildren case. They had two great themes in common: civil rights and access to education. But those were not the only reasons he singled them out. It was also because they were cases in which he acted alone. He was masterful at keeping channels of communication open and moving a group toward consensus, but he trusted his own judgment, and...

  28. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE The Houston Conference
    (pp. 253-266)

    On Tuttle’s court, the Fifth Circuit, Birmingham festered.

    Earlier in the week, Tuttle had sent all members of the court a letter enclosing the agenda for the judicial council meeting scheduled for May 29. Judge Griffin Bell received his copy on the morning of May 23, the day after Tuttle’s ruling in the Birmingham school case. Later that day Bell sent his colleagues an eight-page letter in which he argued that Tuttle was wrong in his assertion that a single circuit court judge could vacate an injunction (the Albany case), or reinstate one after the district court judge had stayed...

    (pp. 267-273)

    If Senator Eastland thought his charge of court packing would intimidate Elbert Tuttle, he quickly learned that he was wrong. The man who survived hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific theater was not about to be intimidated by the sound and fury of his detractors, even when they included a U. S. senator. Tuttle, who had already mapped the way with his pathbreaking orders, continued to show his frustration with the painfully slow pace at which desegregation litigation proceeded.

    Georgetown, Texas, lies just twenty-six miles north of Austin on the historic Chisholm Trail. In 1960 its three schools accommodated approximately 1,064...

  30. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE The City Almost Too Busy to Hate
    (pp. 274-281)

    Although Tuttle joined the Fifth Circuit in 1954, he had carried a low profile until late in 1960, when, almost simultaneously, he became chief judge and he entered the order that desegregated the University of Georgia. Then he became the iconic activist judge. Tempers ran hot, and he, along with his colleagues, was the target of increasing animosity over the next several years. His daughter-in-law, Ginny, would never forget a call to her home in the aftermath of that order. “I have a daughter at the University of Georgia, and if anything happens down there you had better watch out...

  31. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Family and Friends
    (pp. 282-291)

    As the chief judge of the Fifth Circuit from 1960 to 1967, as the leader of a court that took the constitutional rights of black Americans seriously and insisted they be recognized, Tuttle was something of a pariah. Still, as he was quick to point out, he had it comparatively easy. It helped that Atlanta was perhaps the most progressive city in the Deep South, and it helped that everyone knew he was not a native southerner, that he had actually gone to an integrated school. “They didn’t expect much of me,” he would explain. Being a veteran of hand-to-hand...

  32. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE A Jurisprudence of Justice
    (pp. 292-314)

    Judges sit to decide cases, and for more than four decades on the bench, that is what Elbert Tuttle did. He published more than twenty-three hundred opinions during his tenure on the court; the overwhelming majority carefully applied precedent to precise facts and resolved legal disputes in matters critical to the parties but not of general public interest. He rarely found it necessary or appropriate to speak of his judicial philosophy.

    In a 1971 case, however, Tuttle found himself explaining his dissent. Two prisoners had filed a class-action lawsuit against the director of the Texas Department of Correction, alleging that...

  33. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX Hail to the Chief—and Farewell
    (pp. 315-326)

    On July 17, 1967, Elbert Tuttle turned seventy and stepped down as chief judge of the Fifth Circuit. His predecessor in office, Judge Hutcheson, had served as chief until he was eighty, but a federal statute enacted in 1958 required chief judges to relinquish the office at seventy.¹ Will Sparks, an assistant to Lyndon Johnson, sent the president a note: “We do not ordinarily recognize judicial retirements by special messages. In this case, however, Justice Department strongly recommends that you make an exception. . . . According to the Justice Department, Judge Tuttle has done more for civil rights than...

    (pp. 327-328)
    (pp. 329-330)
    (pp. 331-332)
  37. NOTES
    (pp. 333-374)
  38. INDEX
    (pp. 375-399)