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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Becoming involved in the civil rights movement

Murphy describes how he became involved in the civil rights movement. He was teaching constitutional law at the University of Mississippi, the only accredited law school in the state, and found himself teaching material that contradicted many southerners' beliefs about states' rights. When influential Mississippians tried to force Murphy out, he had to choose whether to change his approach to law. He chose not to, and suddenly, Murphy was a civil rights activist.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. 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

SEAN DEVEREUX:
I'm interested in the general question of what motivated you to take the stand that you took at that time, whether it was a question of your academic freedom or a vindication of law and order or whether you felt there was specific injustice being done in the South in the separate school systems, or how exactly you thought about it if you thought about it at the time… In other words, when Brown v. the Board of Education came out, you, I notice in your review of it, were critical of the decision in some ways, but you ended up defending the case ultimately.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
I never really thought of it in terms of taking a stand on anything. It all started because I was teaching the course in Constitutional Law. And I taught the course basically the way it was taught all over the country, the way I would have taught it anywhere else in the country, and that assumes that Supreme Court decisions are law and at some point, to some extent, ought to be complied with. And so I never really consciously took a stand on anything. I started out just teaching a normal Constitutional Law course. And the only thing that made that unusual or got me in hot water was that that normal approach toward constitutional law and the authority of the Supreme Court was contrary to the basic approach which these Citizens Council types took. And that was that the Supreme Court didn't have the authority, and that there wasn't any duty to comply. So I started out, really, in complete innocence, just doing what a constitutional law professor would have done anywhere in the country, and the only thing that made it unusual was the time and the place. They apparently wanted the Con Law course taught kind of like it would have been taught at a Citizens Council rally. [Laughter] And I wasn't about to do that. But I didn't start out to take a stand or be a hero or anything like that. I got in hot water initially because of the way I taught the course.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
Were there other people teaching Con Law?
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
No, at that time we had a very small faculty and a relatively small student body. And I was the only Constitutional Law teacher.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
So in effect you were the only one in the State of Mississippi.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
That's right, because it was the only accredited law school in the State of Mississippi, and almost all of the people who become practicing lawyers and judges and influential politicians in Mississippi at that time went to the Ole Miss Law School. So I can see—I could begin to see even in the late fifties—why, from the point of view of my critics, I was what they called me, a "dangerous man," because the Ole Miss Law School was the throat through which the future lawyers and judges and leaders of the state went. And here was this guy Murphy up there who was teaching them things that were subversive of the Mississippi way of life. I can understand why they thought I was dangerous. But it didn't occur to me initially that I was taking a stand on anything, and I certainly didn't set out to be a hero or a martyr or anything. But it started out in the classroom, and then it did go beyond the classroom but still well within the academic area. I began to publish some book reviews. And then when I wrote this doctoral dissertation, which was a comparative analysis of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and which really was contrary to the whole concept of state sovereignty, I began to publish it as a series of articles in the Mississippi Law Journal. That engendered some opposition.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
But that was equally accidental.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
Yes, I didn't set out to become a cause celebre in Mississippi. Nothing was ever farther from my mind. I later compared myself with the innocent bystander who gets bit by a mad dog. [Laughter] I had no earthly idea that it would end up the way it did when I began to pursue my teaching and my writing activities. It just happened that the way I taught and what I wrote turned out to be directly contrary to what many influential Mississippians believed, and so they decided they had to get rid of me. And I had to decide whether I was going to keep on writing and teaching the way that I thought I ought to, or whether I was going to knuckle under to these people, and at that point I did have to take a stand.