Coleman, J(ames) P(lemon)

views updated

Coleman, J(ames) P(lemon)

(b. 9 January 1914 near Ackerman, Mississippi; d. 28 September 1991 in Ackerman, Mississippi), politician, Mississippi governor, and federal appeals court judge best known for his efforts to prevent violence while defending segregation during the struggle over civil rights in the South.

The oldest of six children born to Thomas Allen Coleman, a farmer, and Jennie Essie Worrell, a homemaker, Coleman grew up on his parents’ small farm where he engaged in the hard physical labor required in agriculture before mechanization. He graduated from high school in 1931. Without funds to attend college Coleman took a truckload of sweet potatoes to the University of Mississippi in 1931 or 1932, hoping to sell them to the cafeteria for tuition money. Although the university refused the vegetables, he was offered a campus job and attended “Ole Miss” from 1932 to 1935 but did not finish his degree.

In 1935 Coleman moved to Washington, D.C., as secretary to newly elected congressman Aaron L. Ford. There he studied law in the evenings at George Washington University and received his LL.B. in 1939. He married Margaret Janet Dennis on 2 May 1937. They had one child.

In 1939 Coleman returned to Ackerman, established a law practice, and won election as district attorney. He served until 1946, when he was elected circuit court judge. In 1950 he was appointed to the state Supreme Court, but he served less than two months before the governor appointed him attorney general to complete an unexpired term. In 1951 Coleman was elected to a full term as Mississippi attorney general.

In 1955 Coleman, the skillful lawyer, demonstrated his political acumen by adopting the persona of country plow-boy and winning election as governor over better-known opponents. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional the previous year, and racial issues dominated Coleman’s term as governor. In the volatile political atmosphere, Coleman feared violent outbreaks by whites and counseled quiet resistance to integration. He launched a public relations campaign to convince Northern voters that race relations were satisfactory in the South and made several national television appearances himself, used the newly established Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and law enforcement agencies to identify and intimidate black residents who might challenge the status quo, and frequently reassured whites that their leaders could prevent change in the white-dominated society. Coleman implemented a major school building program, primarily to improve segregated black schools; won substantial increases in teacher pay; initiated state regulation of utility rates; and vigorously, but unsuccessfully, promoted the writing of a new state constitution to facilitate economic development. Reflecting on his term years later, the former governor declared that “four years of peace and quiet” was his principal accomplishment.

A Democrat, Coleman believed that the South could influence national politics most effectively from within the Democratic party. Consequently, he consistently supported Democratic candidates for national office, even as the national party moved toward support for civil rights.

Prohibited by the state constitution from serving consecutive terms as governor, Coleman won a seat in the state legislature in 1959. He turned down appointments as secretary of the army and ambassador to Australia proffered by President John F. Kennedy after the 1960 election and prepared for another race for governor in 1963. This time Coleman was defeated because of his comparative moderation on racial issues and his 1960 electoral support of Kennedy, who had subsequently used federal troops to integrate the University of Mississippi. He returned to his private law practice.

In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Coleman to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. With jurisdiction over six southern states from Texas to Florida, the Fifth Circuit had taken the judicial lead in advancing civil rights. Fearing that Coleman, whom Congressman John Conyers labeled “the thinking man’s segregationist,” would stand in the way of continued progress, a coalition of civil rights groups mounted a challenge to his Senate confirmation. After a brief but bruising battle, Coleman was confirmed.

As a federal judge Coleman had responsibility for implementing school desegregation decisions that he had opposed as governor. An analysis of his voting record on the court indicates that he supported the claims of racial minorities most of the time, but less consistently than most of his judicial colleagues. A strong believer in states’ rights, Coleman rarely overruled actions by state officials.

In 1979 Coleman was elevated to chief judge of the Fifth Circuit, which had been expanded that year from fifteen judges to twenty-five. Population growth, economic development, and civil rights litigation had combined to make the Fifth Circuit the nation’s busiest federal appeals court, and for several years Coleman and Senator James O. East-land of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had vigorously advocated division of the Fifth Circuit into two courts. Civil rights supporters on the court and in Congress had blocked the plan, however, because it would have separated Mississippi from the more liberal influences of judges from Texas and Louisiana and joined it with Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in a new circuit certain to be more conservative. Soon after assuming the leadership of a court made unwieldy by its large size and immense workload, Coleman agreed to a compromise that he had previously rejected: keeping Mississippi in the Fifth Circuit with Texas and Louisiana and creating a new Eleventh Circuit for the other three states. Congress quickly enacted the necessary legislation.

Coleman gave up his position as chief judge in February 1981 to permit the senior members of the new Fifth and Eleventh Circuits to preside over the division of the old court into two. In May 1981 he assumed senior status, entitling him to hear cases on a part-time basis, but freeing him from full-time judicial service. He retired from the court fully in February 1984, and reentered private law practice.

Throughout his adult life, Coleman exuberantly pursued an interest in Mississippi history and genealogy. He served as president of the Mississippi Historical Society and published a history of his home county as well as two family histories. Coleman suffered a stroke in December 1990 and died from complications nine months later. He is buried in Enon Cemetery in Ackerman.

Termed a Southern “moderate” in derision by his enemies and respect by his friends, Coleman rejected the label. He called himself a “successful segregationist.” He always respected the law, but he mistakenly believed that the South could use the instruments of the law to maintain white domination. As a federal judge he won praise from his colleagues for his fairness and his devotion to the law.

Coleman’s papers are in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. The Department of Archives and History also has a subject file consisting primarily of newspaper articles. Coleman’s judicial performance is analyzed in Elkin Terry Jack, “Racial Policy and Judge J. P. Coleman: A Study in Political-Judicial Linkage” (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern Mississippi, 1979). His political career is the subject of Robbie Sue Lee, “James P. Coleman and the Politics of Race” (M.A. thesis, Mississippi College, 1972), and Connie L. Cartledge, “James P. Coleman: Moderate Politician in an Age of Racial Strife, 1950–1965” (M.A. thesis, Mississippi State University, 1984). Earl Black, Southern Governors and Civil Rights: Racial Segregation As a Campaign Issue in the Second Reconstruction (1976), examines Coleman’s gubernatorial campaigns, and Deborah J. Barrow and Thomas G. Walker elaborate on Coleman’s role in the division of the Fifth Circuit in A Court Divided: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Politics of Judicial Reform (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Sept. 1991). Coleman gave a number of oral history interviews. They are in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, and Mississippi College in Clinton.

Vagn K. Hansen

About this article

Coleman, J(ames) P(lemon)

Updated About content Print Article