Benjamin Franklin Cameron Jr. sat for nine historic years on the federal appeals court that decided most of the momentous civil rights cases of the twentieth century. Born in Meridian in 1890 to Benjamin Franklin Cameron and Elizabeth Garner Cameron, Ben Cameron Jr. attended Meridian High School, the University of the South, and Cumberland University, where he received his law degree in 1914.
Cameron first considered a career as a minister, became a Latin and German professor at Virginia’s Norfolk Academy, and then served as director of athletics at Cumberland University. In 1914 he returned to Meridian to practice law. For five years he served as the unpaid coach of Meridian High School’s first football teams. In 1948 more than one hundred former players established the Ben Cameron Wildcat Scholarship in his honor.
Cameron enjoyed a distinguished career at the bar in Meridian. A man of religious convictions and an absolute teetotaler, Cameron was offended by Democrat Al Smith’s 1928 anti-Prohibition platform and promptly realigned his politics with the Republican Party. Herbert Hoover’s presidential election led to Cameron’s 1929 appointment as US attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, a position he held for four years.
Democrats disdained Cameron as a turncoat “Hoovercrat” or he might have risen to the federal bench as early as 1930. US district judge Edwin Holmes seemingly was slated for appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and many observers thought that Cameron would get Hoover’s nod for the district court slot. But political turmoil meant that Holmes was not elevated to the Fifth Circuit until 1936, and Cameron remained in private practice.
When the GOP regained national power in 1953 after a two-decade hiatus, the Eisenhower administration keenly sought Republicans to fill judicial vacancies. An opening occurred at the Fifth Circuit in 1954 when Judge Holmes retired. Cameron, who had been US attorney in the previous GOP administration, was an obvious candidate to succeed the man he had nearly followed to the federal bench a quarter century earlier. Eisenhower supporters in Mississippi backed Cameron, and Democratic Senators James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis eventually backed him as well. President Eisenhower appointed Cameron on 18 February 1955 with the endorsement of both the American Bar Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He took his seat on 23 March.
Judge Cameron’s controversial and acrimonious tenure on the Fifth Circuit was marked by his adherence to his states’ rights perspective on constitutional issues and his determined rejection of federal desegregation policy. An unabashed defender of Old South ways, Cameron was pitted against the court’s progressive pro–civil rights majority, whom he dubbed the Four: Judges John Minor Wisdom, Elbert Tuttle, John Brown, and Richard Rives. Cameron famously complained that the court “rigged” outcomes by refusing to assign him to hear civil rights cases from Mississippi. On three occasions Cameron entered orders preventing James Meredith’s historic enrollment at the University of Mississippi, only to be overruled each time.
- Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes (1981)
- Sheldon Goldman, Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection from Roosevelt through Reagan (1997)
- Jackson Daily News (1954–55); Memphis Commercial Appeal (1964)
- Meridian Star (1954–55)
- Frank T. Read and Lucy S. McGough, Let Them Be Judged (1978)
- R. E. Wilbourn, Speech to the Life and Career of Honorable Ben F. Cameron, Special Memorial Proceedings and Presentation of Portraits, US District Court Room, Jackson, Mississippi (24 April 1970)