Retired judge and law professor Gordon A. Martin Jr. discusses book
By Janice K. Neal-Vincent, Ph.D.
The United States Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Forrest County, Mississippi’s voting registrar Theron Lynd in 1961. Such a move pushed the county into the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Soft spoken Gordon A. Martin Jr. sat before listeners at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and stated that despite a black populace of 7,500 (30 percent) in Forrest County, only 12 were registered voters.
United States v. Lynd, however, was according to the retired judge and adjunct law professor, “the first trial that resulted in the conviction of a southern registrar for contempt of court.”
“It was very clear his role was to keep down the number of registered blacks,” Martin noted.
The “model case” was influential in shaping the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and challenged voter discrimination in the South.
Jr.The book, Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote, is a groundbreaker for Martin whose travels took him to Hattiesburg from Washington to build a federal case against Lynd.
Martin told his audience that he prepared the government’s 16 black witnesses who courageously stepped forward in protest as they had been denied registration. Additionally, he found white witnesses and served as one of the lawyers during the trial.
Time moved into decades and Martin found himself back in Mississippi in search of the “courageous 16” who he remembered.
Still alive, these witnesses, their children, and their friends provided oral history about a trial “that fundamentally reshaped liberty and the South,” stated Martin. According to him, reshaping was vital, for stipulations were made against blacks that forced them into second class citizenship.
Denied access to the voting booth was an impediment to black voter success. Despite the fact that blacks went to cast their vote numerous times, Martin noted that they were rejected. Many of them were forced to complete an intensive application. A photo copy from Sam Hall and one from Addie Burger, a school teacher, were given to attendees at the panel.
Hall and Burger were instructed to copy a section from the state constitution and to follow-up with an interpretation. Their applications were denied. Thus, no changes could be made unless approved by the Justice Department regarding the right to vote.
The author also indicated that he had to search vital records from the Hattiesburg Library and high school, as Judge William Harold Cox was “uncooperative.” “I found white people to speak the truth that they never had to complete forms. When I showed up at the high school, the parents were not happy to see me.
“So I had to use my northern charm. We put on 32 witnesses regarding voting discrimination. Cox gave me a continuance and we had to go to Circuit Court.”
Martin informed the audience that when Cox retired, he was replaced by Judge William Barbour who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. The speaker then acknowledged Judge Carlton Wayne Reeves, an African American.
“When Barbour took senior status, that created a vacancy and President Barack Obama appointed me to that slot. Now I sit in the same seat that Barbour sat in,” stated Reeves.
When Martin was asked his advice about today’s voter ID requirements, he responded: “When you think you’ve achieved rights, you better look again because there may be others who’ll try to take those rights away from you.”
Some witnessing the presentation made observations. For instance, Krista Sorenson who hails from Wisconsin and has been employed a year at MDAH said, “This was very timely after last night’s event (referencing the documentary film discussion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965). It’s very important to have multiple perspectives.”
Gordon A. Martin Jr. is a retired trial judge and an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston, Mass. He is also a graduate of Harvard College and New York University School of Law.