A Portrait of Courage
We have to a great extent forgotten the American apartheid known as Jim Crow segregation, and we have forgotten the critical role that heroic federal judges like Elbert Parr Tuttle played in ending it.
Tuttle became chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had jurisdiction over most of the Deep South, in 1960. Fifth Circuit judges were ordinarily men of the region, steeped in its peculiar and pernicious history. Tuttle was not.
If one wonders whether exposure to diversity matters, Tuttle’s life story suggests it matters a great deal. He was born in California in 1897, and by the time he was 10 Tuttle had lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Nogales, Ariz. Then, in 1907, his family moved to Hawaii, a rare multiracial culture, where he attended Punahou, the same school in which Barack Obama would enroll decades later.
After earning a B.A. and a J.D. at Cornell University, Tuttle settled in Atlanta. With his brother-in-law Bill Sutherland, who had clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, he founded a resoundingly successful law firm. He was interested in politics, but he would not join the white Democratic Party, which was segregated by law as well as by custom, and the Republican Party was virtually nonexistent.
At the age of 44 he volunteered for overseas duty in World War II. Once he was back home from the Pacific Theater, having survived the Guam campaign, the Leyte Operation and hand-to-hand combat on Ie Shima, he waged another war. His drive to create a viable,integrated Republican Party culminated in his helping to secure the Republican nomination for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. That, in turn, led to Tuttle’s nomination to the bench.
In those post-war years, the fledgling Republican Party was about the only thing inGeorgia that was integrated. Certainly college campuses were not. The governor had run on a pledge of “No Not One” that rang like thunder from his bully pulpit. No Not One – a promise that not one black student would attend school with whites – was a campaign pledge backed by the law. State statutes called for withdrawal of state funding should an institution educate both black and white students; private schools would lose their tax exemptions. Under threat of arrest, black and white students did not sit in the same classrooms, eat in the same establishments or wander the same campuses.
Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. When Tuttle became chief judge in 1960, in the recalcitrant South nothing had changed. There was no integration at all in schools in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. In North Carolina, 60 black students out of an eligible 319,000 attended integrated school. The South was dragging its feet, and if it could, it would drag its feet forever.
When Tuttle ordered the immediate registration of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes at the University of Georgia within weeks of becoming chief judge, a new message flashed across the South – delay would not be tolerated, and violence would not work. It is painful to remember the world we did live in, and it is painful to imagine the world we might still live in absent the determination of judges like Elbert Tuttle to see the constitutional rights of black citizens honored and enforced.
And yet I do remember. And because I remember, I exult every day when I come to this campus with its rich pastiche of people from every race and culture, from every corner of the globe. We draw much of our strength from our diversity, and because of its breadth and depth, we are very strong.