April 4, 2018 § 6 Comments
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fifty years ago today.
Rev. King’s footprints crossed Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. He led a March Against Fear in North Mississippi, visited Jackson, Meridian, Philadelphia , and other locales, was instrumental in “Freedom Summer,” and spread his message of nonviolent change — but unrelenting, inevitable change — across the South. He died a southerner in the South, murdered while encouraging striking garbage-workers in Memphis.
Those of us alive back then recall how he was libeled as a “Communist,” charged with fomenting Black revolution, and hated because he insisted that America’s unjust, hateful system of Apartheid must end. His message was condemned by white politicians, many of whom capitalized on fear of desegregation among white voters to feather their own political nests.
But King, a martyr to his own cause, has over time prevailed. His remarkable life and untimely death were the catalyst for much change. Much of the racial interaction and Black achievement that we take for granted today would have been unimaginable in 1968.
King was right. History has proven him right.
1968 was a devastating year. In January alone, in Viet Nam the bloody seige of Khe Sanh began, the USS Pueblo was seized by North Korea, and the Tet Offensive rocked America’s confidence in the ever-expanding Viet Nam War. Later in the year, the nation was shocked by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and unsettled by the violent protests and police reaction in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. Prague Spring, led by Alexander Dubcek, brought the light of hope to Czechoslovakia in January, only to have it cruelly crushed by Warsaw Pact troops in August. “The Troubles” began in Ireland when police brutally beat protesters in Northern Ireland. Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection as President after losing to Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary.
It would have been understandable were the Civil Rights Movement to have flickered out in the face of all this trauma, but the flame that Rev. King had lit was strong, and it burned bright, consuming and defeating hate, political expediency, and bigotry in its peaceful heat.
Fifty years along, our progress toward racial peace is not as advanced as Rev. King would have wished, but we are much further along than we would have been able to be without him.
March 9, 2017 § 4 Comments
In 1830 the Mississippi Legislature abolished the tribal character of the Choctaws and Chickasaws and conferred upon them the rights of citizenship, subjecting them and their property to the operation of Mississippi law. One section of the law provided:
“That all marriages and matrimonial connections entered into by virtue of any custom or usage of the said Indians, and by them deemed valid, should be held as valid and obligatory as if the same had been solemnised [sic] according to the laws of the state.”
In 1830, Mississippi followed the common law principle of coverture, which provided that married women and their property were under the absolute control of their husbands.
Some time in the 1780’s, Elizabeth Love, also called Betty or Betsy, was born in the territory of the Chickasaw Nation in what was to become the State of Mississippi. Her parents, Thomas Love and Sally Colbert, were Chickasaws who owned slaves, and Betty came to own many slaves herself. Around 1797, Betty married James Allen, also known as John, in a Chickasaw ceremony. Allen was a North Carolina widower who had moved to Mississippi. Together they had eleven children, and they resided on Love property in Chickasaw territory.
In November, 1829, Betty Allen made a gift to her daughter Susan, a minor, of Toney, who was one of her slaves. The transaction was part of gifts she made to her children, and title was properly recorded according to the law at the time. Betty, I am sure, gave the transaction little thought, since Chickasaw custom and usage was that married women retained separate ownership of property in their own name.
John Allen became involved in a lawsuit and retained the services of a lawyer, John Fisher. When Allen failed to pay his fee, Fisher sued and obtained a default judgment against Allen for $200 in March, 1831, in the Circuit Court of Monroe County. Fisher executed on the judgment by having a writ issued for seizure of any property belonging to John Allen to sell at auction in satisfaction of the judgment. In response, the sheriff seized the slave Toney on the basis that Toney was John Allen’s property under coverture, and the conveyance by Betty to her daughter was ineffective.
George Allen, Susan’s brother, sued on her behalf for trial of right of property, and the case was decided in Susan’s favor by jury verdict. Fisher appealed to the High Court of Errors and Appeals of Mississippi.
In Fisher v. Allen, 2 Howard 611, 3 Miss. 611 (1837), the court held that, under the customs of the Chickasaws, a husband acquired no right to the property belonging to a woman at the time of the marriage. Under the acts of 1830 mentioned above, the state could not alter the conditions of persons whose marriages were validated by the acts, nor could it extend the rights of husbands. Property belonging to the wife under Chickasaw customs is not liable for the debts of the husband. The effect of the appeal was to affirm the trial court’s ruling.
The case had an impact on Mississippi law, and, indeed, on American law.
In 1839, Mississippi Senator T.B.J. Hadley was involved in a dispute with his creditors, and he introduced two bills in the legislature: one provided for married women’s rights with respect to their property; the other asked protection from his creditors. The two are apparently related. His wife, who moved to Mississippi from Louisiana, where the civil law did not recognize coverture, was not happy that a boarding house she owned could be jeopardized by Hadley’s debt problems. The bill relieving him of his debts passed easily, no doubt due to cronyism, but the property bill was voted down twice before it finally passed. Hadley argued persuasively that, if the Chickasaws and Choctaws were exempt, all Mississippi citizens should be also. He used the Fisher v. Allen case as his template. The legislature adopted his law, and upon its passage Mississippi became the first common law state to depart from the rule of coverture. The statute provided:
“[t]hat any married woman may become seized or possessed of any property, real or personal, by direct bequest, demise, gift, purchase, or distribution, in her own name, and as of her own property, provided the same does not come from her husband after coverture.”
Other states soon followed suit. England itself abrogated the common law rule with its own statute some years later.
In 1880, the Mississippi Legislature adopted a statute completely abolishing the disability of coverture (MCA 93-3-1).
When the 1890 Mississippi Constitution was adopted, its Article 4, Section 94 included a permanent prohibition against re-enactment of any coverture concepts. It provides:
The Legislature shall never create by law any distinction between the rights of men and women to acquire, own, enjoy, and dispose of property of all kinds, or their power to contract in reference thereto. Married women are hereby fully emancipated from all disability on account of coverture …
It was Betty Allen’s gift to Susan back in 1829, and Susan’s fight for her rights, that started the impetus to change.
There is an Historical Marker on Highway 278/6 in western Pontotoc County that is pictured below. Betty Allen’s grave had been adjacent to Highway 6, with a bronze marker, but had to be moved when the highway was widened.
Although the Fisher v. Allen case does involve property rights in a slave, an issue considered repugnant by today’s standards, the legal conflict reflects the prevailing law and culture of that time, and must be seen in that context. Regardless of how we view it today, Betty Allen’s legacy has benefitted generations of Mississippi women.
MPB has a series of historical sketches in honor of Mississippi’s bicentennial this year. One such piece, presented by Marshall Ramsey, tells Betty Allen’s story. It’s a story that touches on many themes of early Mississippi: the derecognition of the indigenous tribes; slavery and the incidents of slave ownership; legal disabilities of women; and — yes — Mississippi’s relative progressivism in the formative years of its law and jurisprudence.
February 17, 2017 § 4 Comments
Franklin is a once-thriving community in Holmes County. Settlers, primarily from South Carolina and Virginia, arrived in the area in the early 1830’s, soon after it was ceded by the Choctaws. They developed cotton plantations worked by the slaves they had brought with them.
Still standing is the church built east of Franklin in 1841 with slave labor.
The church has two front doors, one of which is obscured by a tree in the picture above. Originally, one door was used by men, the other by women.
The cemetery behind the church is filled with graves of the early settlers, many of whom had been born in the 1700’s. Many of the tombstones remark that the decedent was from the Abbeville District in South Carolina.
The photo below shows the gravestone of Benjamin W. Russell, who immigrated to the area from North Carolina two years before his death in 1857 at only 21 years of age. The intriguing inscription recites his tragic history, which sounds like treachery in a business deal, and perhaps a duel: “Here lies entombed an honest man whose courage forced him from a distant land, by fortune’s wheel untimely thrown, this grave bespeaks his solemn moan. Let youth in future great caution take, and never join in business for fortune’s sake, for hearts today in manly friendship beat, tomorrow in a warlike attitude may meet.”
In the waning days of the Civil War, on January 2, 1865, only three months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, 1,100 Confederate Home Guards led by General Wirt Adams attacked a column of 3,300 mounted federal troops near the church. The union forces included some of the Second U.S. Colored Cavalry, which consisted of black men recruited from Mississippi, according to a nearby Historical Marker. The battle resulted in heavy Confederate losses, and many were taken prisoner. None of the soldiers who died there are buried in this cemetery; at least none is so noted. Some sources state that the church still bears bulletholes from the clash, but none were visible to us when we visited recently. The historical marker incorrectly states that the battle was part of Grierson’s Raid, but that action actually took place in 1863, and Grierson’s force, which numbered only 1,700 men, did not come near Franklin.
So, who were these people? Who were the farmers, the slaves, the shopkeepers, blacksmiths, homemakers, the soldiers, cavalrymen? What did they hold dear, and what did they care nothing about? What filled their days? What did they dream about? What were their stories? What did they leave behind to mark their time on earth other than tombstones?
There are many communities in Mississippi in decline and on the way to their own extinction. It’s hard to grasp how places that were once so vital, pulsing with the lives and endeavors of people, can simply wither away and return to wilderness, but they do. It’s a sort of cultural entropy. Franklin reminds us that what can seem so important and even critical to us today will be forgotten and faded to nothing over time. Sic transit gloria mundi.
July 11, 2016 § 2 Comments
You may find it useful in your family practice to have a copy of U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves’s opinion in Barber, et al. v. Bryant, et al., handed down June 30, 2016. Here is a link to it.
This is the suit that asked for an injunction against enforcement or of HB 1523, also colloquially known as the “Religious Freedom Bill,” that in essence left it to individual conscience and judgment whether to follow the law. It was to have gone into effect July 1, 2016, by its terms. Judge Reeves’s ruling is that it is unconstitutional, and, therefore, unenforceable. His conclusion paragraph states:
Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It must be enjoined.
As of this writing, it is unclear whether the governor, attorney general, or other defendants will appeal, or who would bear that expense, but it seems unlikely, in my opinion, that the Fifth Circuit would overturn the ruling.
[Update: Since this was written, Gov. Bryant has announced that he intends to appeal.]
May 13, 2016 § 2 Comments
For African-Americans travelling through the south in the Jim Crow days, it could be a dicey proposition finding accommodations. White hotels, restaurants, night clubs, resorts, and even service stations reserved the “right to refuse service to anyone,” which meant, decoded, that neither persons of color nor their money were welcome. If you waited to discover what might be available locally when you arrived at your destination, you and your family might just wind up spending the night in your car.
To meet the challenges of southern travel in that era, non-white travelers had to rely on guidebooks to help them plan their journeys. One such was The Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor Green of New York. The link will take you to an article in the excellent Preservation in Mississippi Blog that talks about the publication.
Green’s guide was initially published to cover the New York City area, but there was such demand for its content that it soon expanded to cover the hinterland. Mississippi was first listed in 1939. You can view the Mississippi lodging page for that year at this link. It lists “tourist homes” — private residences offering lodging for travelers — in eight communities: Charleston, Greenville, Grenada, “Macomb”, Meridian, New Albany, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City. Hotels were listed by name and address in six of those same cities: Queen City, 15th St. and 7th Ave., Columbus; Bass, S. Pine St., Laurel; Kingston Park, N. Section, Kingston community, Laurel; Townsend, 534 Summit St., McComb; Beales, 2411 Fifth St., Meridian; Foot’s, Railroad Ave., New Albany; and Caldwell, Water and Broadway Sts., Yazoo City.
A more detailed article on Meridian’s accommodations from various editions of the Green Book can be found at this link.
December 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
November 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that I have not been a fan of Dickie Scruggs and the damage he did to the legal profession and our courts.
Aside from his arrogance and trampling of ethics, it galled me that he seemed to be trying to deflect the blame onto the judges he either corrupted or attempted to corrupt. I almost expected his post-prison persona to be devoted to a rehabilitation of his former formidable self, coupled with casting doubt on the criminal cases that brought him down.
But the exact opposite has happened. I saw a recent interview with Tom Brokaw in which Mr. Scruggs admitted that his criminal conduct came about because “I got too big for my britches,” and “It was hubris” plain and simple. In a Clarion-Ledger interview he said, “I regret what I did. I paid a high price for it. After all, I pled guilty to corruption.” Those are breathtakingly humble admissions from a man who once ran over anyone and everything that stood in the way of what he wanted, ethics and the law be damned.
In prison, he came to grips with how far he had fallen and rediscovered decency. He began tutoring inmates for an adult GED program. Since his release, he has begin promoting adult illiteracy classes. You can read the Clarion-Ledger interview at this link. Scruggs says in the interview that he misses the practice of law, but now he has a worthy cause to which he can bring his advocacy skills.
I wish Mr. Scruggs well in this endeavor, as we should all. He is no longer a colleague, and never again will he be, but he is trying to make a difference in our poor, undereducated state, and that deserves applause and encouragement, no matter who is doing it.