Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act guaranteed voting rights and access to public accommodations to black Americans, and Congress strengthened it several times to enable its effective enforcement. The anniversary of its passage has been observed in many ways across our nation and in New Orleans.
Years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act, federal courts began striking down segregationist laws. Civil rights advocates recognized early on that legislative bodies moved too slowly and too imprecisely to achieve the aim of equal rights. They turned instead to the courts for relief.
The civil rights movement has many heroes, but few of them held public office in the South during the 1950s. One of them was Judge J. Skelly Wright.
Wright was part of a three-judge federal panel that ordered the integration of LSU Law School in 1950 — four years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Wright had been appointed to the federal bench only a year earlier by President Harry Truman.
A New Orleans native who graduated from Loyola Law School's evening program, Wright wrote the court's opinion in the LSU Law School case. A year later, a young black student named Ernest N. Morial enrolled at LSU Law School. Morial, of course, went on to become New Orleans' first black mayor in 1978.
Wright went on to pen many civil rights opinions, including one in 1956 that ordered the integration of New Orleans public schools. He also ordered the desegregation of City Park's swimming pools in 1957, local streetcars and buses in 1958, public sporting events in 1958 and the public schools of East Baton Rouge and St. Helena parishes in 1960. He likewise barred Washington Parish from purging blacks from voter registration rolls.
Wright's rulings in civil rights cases put him at odds with many of his
white peers. His family was ostracized socially and became the frequent target of threats — including a cross burning on his front lawn.
He did not back down. In fact, his opinion in the New Orleans public schools case contained one of the most eloquent and oft-quoted moral imperatives of civil rights jurisprudence:
"The problem of changing a people's mores, particularly those with an emotional overlay, is not to be taken lightly. It is a problem which will require the utmost patience, understanding, generosity and forbearance from all of us, of whatever race. But the magnitude of the problem may not nullify the principle. And that principle is that we are, all of us, freeborn Americans, with a right to make our way, unfettered by sanctions imposed by man because of the work of God."
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Wright to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — an appointment that got him and his family safely out of hostile New Orleans. Despite the harsh treatment he received here, he never lost his affection for his hometown. Wright died in Washington in 1988.
Next month, Wright's law school alma mater will honor his legacy by establishing the J. Skelly Wright Memorial Fund. Loyola has commissioned local sculptor Thomas Bruno to create a bronze bust of Wright to be placed at the law school's entrance, and the memorial will fund a scholarship to the law school. The bust will be unveiled on Oct. 24 after a daylong symposium honoring Wright and his contributions to civil rights and law.
Loyola is seeking contributions to the Memorial Fund. Hopefully, the local legal and business communities that shunned Wright during his lifetime will see fit to honor him now.
— Contributions to the J. Skelly Wright Memorial Fund may be sent to Loyola's College of Law, 7214 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70118 — or via the school's website at giving.loyno.edu (specify it's for the J. Skelly Wright Memorial Fund). Donors may also contact Professor M. Isabel Medina at 504-861-5655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.