Commentary: On Point: Judge recounts inside story of landmark voting reform

By Stephen C. Pfaff

The Daily Record Newswire

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation banning discriminatory voting practices, stands on the shoulders of those African-American citizens of the Deep South who, with great courage and resilience, battled against state action in denying what the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees: The right of U.S. citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color.

"Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote" by Gordon A. Martin Jr., a retired Massachusetts trial court judge, tells the story of how a brave group of African-Americans came forward in 1962 to testify against an elected official who tried through intimidation to lead the fight against racial integration by preventing blacks from voting.

Forrest County in southeastern Mississippi was named in honor of Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1962, the registrar of Forrest County was Theron Lynd, first elected to that position in 1959. An imposing figure at 6 feet 2 inches and 340 pounds, Lynd stood as the sentry determined to continue the policies of the past in preventing blacks from registering to vote.

Martin, a young attorney from Boston hired in 1961 by Attorney General Robert Kennedy's Civil Rights Division to prosecute cases against Mississippi counties where black citizens had been denied the right to vote, was part of the federal government's legal team in the case of U.S. v. Lynd.

Martin takes the reader in great detail through the trial preparation and witness testimony against Lynd and Forrest County. We learn that the government's first witness, Jesse Stegall, a Jackson State graduate and local school teacher, was turned away when he attempted to register.

In one instance, when Stegall arrived to register with two of his colleagues, they were told the office could not handle all of them. The next day, when Stegall and his friends returned, they were given an application form along with two blank index cards and asked to interpret Section 178 of the Mississippi Constitution: the power of the state to charter corporations.

Such a request had never been made of a white applicant; indeed, white applicants needed only sign their name and address and were considered registered. There was never any accompanying request to interpret the state constitution, much less an obscure part of it.

Martin reveals that Stegall gave the perfect answer to the question -- as well as to a second question concerning the duties of citizenship -- but was later informed that he had failed the test.

Each of the government's witnesses met with the same fate when trying to register. The registrar would be unavailable or too busy; when he could see them, they would be asked to explain certain sections of the Mississippi Constitution and would be denied despite giving more than adequate responses.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against Lynd, the presiding U.S. District Court judge, William Harold Cox, was intent on preserving the southern way of life and did everything in his power to limit the case against Lynd.

Martin and the government appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justices Tuttle, Wisdom and Hutcheson, all Eisenhower appointees, constituted the panel that reviewed the overwhelming evidence presented to the court against Lynd.

In a highly unusual legal tactic, the 5th Circuit, not trusting Cox to enter an order consistent with the 5th Circuit's finding that Lynd had violated the rights of the black witnesses, enforced the order itself, ordering Lynd to accept black applicants.

That was the first crack in opening the voting door.

In the end, Martin's book leaves the reader with a detailed understanding of how three groups of people -- the black citizens of Forrest County; the lawyers, including Martin, who helped prepare them for trial; and the judges of the 5th Circuit -- all played pivotal roles in helping to overcome one man's despotic attempt to preserve a way of life that could no longer be tolerated.

Three years later, their hard work bore fruit in the form of one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century.

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Stephen C. Pfaff is a principal at Louison, Costello, Condon & Pfaff in Boston.

Published: Fri, Jun 10, 2011

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