John Creighton Satterfield, born in Port Gibson on 25 July 1904, played a pivotal role in Mississippi’s fight against desegregation throughout much of the mid-twentieth century. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Millsaps College in 1926 and a law degree from the University of Mississippi three years later, Satterfield practiced law in Jackson and Yazoo City. From 1928 to 1932 he served in the Mississippi House of Representatives, helping to pass the laws that built the state’s first highways. Recognized as a gifted wordsmith, Satterfield rapidly became one of Mississippi’s most talented lawyers and was very successful in both the corporate and public sectors. Through his political and legal connections, Satterfield served as president of the Mississippi Bar (1955–56) and became the only Mississippian to hold the presidency of the American Bar Association (1961–62).
A fierce opponent of the civil rights movement, Satterfield maintained a membership in the Citizens’ Council and served on the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. He publicly criticized the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which he regarded as judicial tyranny. In 1962, during the crisis over James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi, Satterfield acted as Gov. Ross Barnett’s personal attorney.
When John F. Kennedy proposed groundbreaking legislation to outlaw segregation in public facilities, Mississippi’s white leaders unleashed a counteroffensive. In the summer of 1963 Satterfield met with Mississippi’s top politicians and business leaders to discuss forming a lobby in Washington, D.C., to fight the legislation. The idea received enthusiastic support. Mississippi segregationists teamed with northern businessmen to create the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms, with the Sovereignty Commission providing money for rent, offices, and personnel. By July 1963 the new lobby had received its first contributions, and Satterfield deposited the money into a special account in the Mississippi State Treasury. Satterfield helped to oversee a wide-reaching financial scheme that filtered hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mississippi’s coffers from Wall Street businessmen and southern segregationists who wanted the legislation quashed. The Sovereignty Commission, in turn, used the money to coordinate opposition, publish editorials, distribute pamphlets, and fight the bill in Congress. Satterfield wrote several pamphlets, including Due Process of Law, or Government by Intimidation? (1962) to raise funds for the group.
In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Angered by the defeat, Satterfield urged the creation of a new national organization that would prove that black southerners were inherently inferior. Satterfield brought in money for the new group, but the violence that accompanied the 1964 Freedom Summer left Mississippi’s segregationists with fewer allies, and the plan fizzled. In 1969 Satterfield mounted his last important stand against desegregation, volunteering his services to defend the Holmes County Board of Education in a lawsuit that sought to force the immediate integration of the county’s schools. Satterfield’s efforts failed. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Alexander v. Holmes finally ended the South’s dual public school systems. For his role in the case, Time labeled Satterfield “the most prominent segregationist lawyer in the country.”
Debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, Satterfield committed suicide on 5 May 1981.
- Douglas A. Blackmon, Wall Street Journal (11 June 1999)
- Yasuhiro Katagiri, The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States’ Rights (2001)
- Michael Landon, The Honor and Dignity of the Profession: A History of the Mississippi State Bar, 1906–1976 (1979)
- Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council (1971)
- John C. Satterfield, Blueprint for Total Federal Regimentation: Analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 (1963)
- John C. Satterfield, Due Process of Law, or Government by Intimidation? (1962)
- John C. Satterfield Papers, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi