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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James P. Coleman, September 5, 1990. Interview A-0338. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racially moderate Mississippi politican describes changing race relations

In this excerpt, Coleman argues that World War II was the catalyst for the civil rights movement. He notes that economically, Mississippi was not able to viably ensure equality under the de facto law of "separate but equal." Coleman recalls his cognizance of this state-maintained inequality in the 1930s, but argues that it was not until after World War II that tensions brewing beneath the surface began to percolate with the onslaught of court cases aimed at tearing down Jim Crow in public schools. In the 1950s, when <cite>Brown v. Board</cite> reached the United States Supreme Court, Coleman was sitting on the Mississippi Supreme Court and he describes his stance on the issue as moderate. According to Coleman, blacks and whites got along fairly well on an individual basis leading up to the war and that because of this, it would be better to allow racial change to happen gradually on its own accord rather than "rushing forward" and fueling tension.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James P. Coleman, September 5, 1990. Interview A-0338. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, my impression of the time up until World War II was that the white people and the black people got along real well on an individual basis, except once and a while there would be an inflammatory rape or something else. I was always so ashamed of Mississippi's record on lynchings, and I hoped while I was governor to see if I could put through one four years without Mississippi having a lynching, and dern, if we didn't have one in a matter that I didn't know anything about until after it was over with, but that's a different story. The thing that started the pot to boiling was absolutely World War II, when everything mixed the troops and all that sort of thing. 'Course, there had been shadows of things to come. You had the Oklahoma College decisions right after World War II. It was Oklahoma and. . . .
JOHN EGERTON:
Missouri was another.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
Missouri, that's right. Yes sir, somebody ex rel. Gaines vs. Missouri, and the other was Sipuel vs. Oklahoma, as I remember. [Pause] I have to admit that I think on the facts and on the evidence, that here was Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union economically, on economic figures, and one of the richest, as far as I'm concerned, in many, many other values of life that were so important then, and as far as I'm concerned, still are important. Trying to maintain two school systems. Barely able to maintain one, see.
JOHN EGERTON:
When it really couldn't afford one. Always struck me as an ironic thing.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
And of course, we had the separate but equal, but we didn't live up to the equal. The main reason being we were not economically able to do so. Couldn't afford it. Even then we were, at least I was and a lot of other people-and of course I was twenty-one years old in 1935-we didn't feel good about that kind of situation. The thinking people knew that they were not being treated right and all that. Of course, way back before then, forty years before then, you had Jim Vardaman and his dogma that if you educated the black man, you ruined him, you know, and so forth. But as I look back on it, it's just sort of like going from a period of very clear weather over quite a number of years, but with no remedies being advanced to take care of the situation. So all of a sudden, the cyclone came up and nobody had any storm cellar. Of course, I remember, you know, all about the school desegregation cases. I was Attorney General of Mississippi at that time.
JOHN EGERTON:
What years were those that you served in that. . .?
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
From 1950 'til '56. You know, your segregation cases were Prince Edward County, Virginia, and Clarendon County, South Carolina, and Topeka, Kansas.
JOHN EGERTON:
Washington, D.C.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
Which is a different legal question on the national scene.
JOHN EGERTON:
There was one more.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
Let's see. Anyway, they got up a grave uproar, but I went to Washington, and I sat in the Supreme Court of the United States. I was a member of the bar of the Supreme Court. I heard all those arguments, the ones they had while Vinson was still the chief. You know about his being found dead on the floor, and then Warren was appointed and so forth. Then they re-argued them and I went back and heard those. However, all the southern states, most of them, they joined in an amicus curae brief supporting South Carolina and Virginia. I refused to sign it. I refused to participate in it. My position was that the problem had not yet arisen in Mississippi, and there wasn't anything to be gained by rushing forward to become embroiled in a problem that might be many years away. At least we'd have more time to think and to plan and to provide. Well, I well remember the day, May 17th, '54, when the decision came down. When people have been told by the Supreme Court of the United States, that's it all right as long as you treat them equally, as they had back there in Plessy against Ferguson, later on in Gum Long against Rice. That was a Mississippi case. With men like Holmes and Brandeis and all those supposed liberals sitting on the court at the time, unanimous decisions. They held that Mississippi could exclude a Chinaman from going to school with white students. That was in '28 or close to it. So then to have it just turned abruptly and absolutely around, and naturally that was going to foment a lot of trouble. What a lot of people overlook is that, of course, the federal courts in that situation were sitting as a court of equity to redress and remedy constitutional deprivation. Even the Supreme Court itself, to start off with, deferred any implementation [of Brown] for a year. Came back and had arguments on that a year later. I heard those as well. There wasn't a suit filed against Mississippi until after I left office as governor. Of course, we then got us a governor named Ross Barnett who kept throwing a match to every gasoline barrel he could find until we had a magnificent explosion. I found, at that time-and I would go around and make speeches to the black school events and things like that-I found that, course, the black people ordinarily are very gentle, easy to get along with, and non-violent people. 'Course, all the violent ones, they get the publicity, and they sound like they've got the whole thing engulfed but that's not really the facts. Too many of us, like myself, `course that's a long gone breed that worked in the fields along side the black people, and had them come in and help look after us when we were sick, and we'd do the same thing for them, and all like that. There was a real reservoir of good feeling, let me put it that way. An old lady that worked for us for years and years, named Lil, she was just as much a lady as anybody you ever saw, and when we died, my mother cried like it was a member of the family. `Course, those feelings somewhat got stamped out in the later agitation and so forth and so on.