Meridian Star

January 13, 2013

History fading away

By Brian Livingston /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     A Katrina fraud case under way may be the last time federal proceedings will take place inside the courtroom on the second floor of a classic, gray building where history was made during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

    Meridian's federal court is among six in the South that will close in the next few years in a cost-cutting measure expected to save $1 million a year in rent.

        The decision to close the federal courthouses was announced last September by the Supreme Court of the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary's policy-making arm.

    Upstairs from the Central Post Office in the heart of downtown Meridian, lawyers, judges, jurors and defendants in the Katrina fraud trail are sitting in many of the same places that in the 1960s saw historic decisions made that helped shape Meridian and the nation. It is a history some say should not be forgotten with the impending closure of the federal courthouse.

    "It is an injustice to let that history just fade away," said Roscoe Jones, a prominent member of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and former Meridian Civil Service Commission member. "It is a travesty they will close this down without so much as a whimper as to what happened there. Our children need to know this legacy."

    In the summer of 1964, what is now known as Freedom Summer began as thousands of civil rights volunteers, mostly college students from other states, poured into Mississippi to help African American residents register to vote.

    On June 21, 1964 three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman 20, Michael Schwerner 24, and James Chaney 21 — who were working out of the Council of Federated Organizations office in Meridian — disappeared while on a trip to Philadelphia. Their car was found burning late in the day. Forty days later their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia.

    "I was supposed to go with them," Jones said of the slain civil rights workers. "But I already had a speaking engagement at the old Fifth Street Baptist Church that evening so I didn't go."

    Eight Klansman went to prison on federal conspiracy charges but none served more than six years and murder charges were never filed. The event inspired the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.

    In 2005 Edgar Ray Killen was arrested in Philadelphia and convicted of manslaughter in the abduction and killing of the three voter-registration volunteers. He was sentenced to three 20-year terms. Billy Wayne Posey, a key suspect in the killings, died in 2009.

    Before the trails began, Bill Gordon remembers Meridian being the typical lazy Southern town. Little did he know that the trials that would take place would turn Meridian into the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement.

    "At the time we didn't think it was that big a deal," said Gordon, who has operated Bill Gordon and Sons Barber Shop across Ninth Street from the court house since 1962. "Not that I had a great deal of time to really think about it."

    Gordon said for the duration of the trial he had 50 FBI agents who judiciously walked across the street each week to get their haircut.

    "I hate to see the federal court room go away and close," Gordon said. "It is a beautiful building and to think there might not be but just a post office in it on the ground floor, well, that is just a waste."

    Bill Ready Sr., made his living in the turbulent '60s as a young, brash Southern attorney who would take civil rights cases no one else would touch and had to pack a firearm just to practice law in Meridian. Ready echoed Gordon's sentiments.

    "It is a shame and many of the Civil Rights laws we follow today were written right inside that court room," Ready said. "That is where the foundation was laid that the United State Supreme Court has upheld."

    Ready said he has seen the slow progression of racial tolerance in the South and Meridian. He said he sees whites holding doors open for blacks and vice versa. He said he sees hands of different color being clasped in friendship instead of raised fists against each other in conflict.

    "You do see more tolerance of race," said Ready. "You see more mixed marriages and the children that come from these vastly different backgrounds. People tolerate that now more than ever before and it is partly because of what happened in that court room up there."

    Jones likes to point out that if you don't know your history then you don't know your future.

    "We still have more progress to be made," Jones said. "In order to do that we need to know what has happened for us to get to this point. People say you can't predict the future. Well, I believe to some extent you can."

    It is Jones' hope that the history of the decisions made in the federal courtroom won't go away with the last trial. He thinks maybe the lessons have slowly taken root.

    The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors have expressed an interest in the courtroom. Last year Joe Norwood, then president of the board, said the county been in contact with state and national political leaders in an attempt to be first in line whenever the Department of Justice decides to sell the property. Joe McCraney, Lauderdale County Administrator, said Friday those talks are ongoing.

    "The board is still planning to address the possibility of the county purchasing the property," McCraney said. "We certainly want to remain in the conversation as a possible buyer."

    Lauderdale County Circuit Court Clerk Donna Jill Johnson said there is one more reservation for the federal courtroom in February.

    "This might not be the absolute last trial to be held here but there is a chance it will be because the next case is a very small one and it may be settled before reaching us here," Johnson said.

    Johnson said the federal clerk in Jackson told her the eight counties that have been served for decades by this court will be split up between Jackson and Hattiesburg.