A pioneer in the development of the Republican Party in the South after World War II, John Minor Wisdom was a regional leader in the nomination and election of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower. He later selected Wisdom as a judge for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which handled many of the desegregation cases arising from Mississippi and other parts of the South during the 1960s.
Wisdom was born on 17 May 1905 in New Orleans and earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University and a law degree from Tulane University. He practiced law in New Orleans from 1929 until 1957, when Eisenhower elevated him to the bench.
Judge Wisdom’s greatest direct role in Mississippi came in the desegregation crisis at the University of Mississippi. In response to US district judge Sidney Mize’s ruling that Meredith had not been denied admission to the university “because of his color or his race,” Wisdom wrote that segregation was a product of an “eerie atmosphere of never-never land” and that segregation in higher education in Mississippi was “a plain fact known to everyone.” Wisdom subsequently characterized another of Mize’s decisions as “a carefully calculated campaign of delay, harassment, and masterly inactivity.”
When the legal battle ended, James Meredith had enrolled at the school, and Gov. Ross Barnett faced federal charges of criminal contempt of court for defying orders issued by the 5th Circuit. Barnett’s contempt case lingered in the courts for two and a half years. In April 1965 the 5th Circuit ruled four to three that “further prosecution of criminal contempt proceedings [would be] unnecessary.”
Judge Wisdom wrote a strong dissent to that ruling, working hard on his final paragraph, a literary classic in legal opinion writing: “There is an unedifying moral to be drawn from this case of The Man in High Office Who Defied the Nation: the mills of the law grind slowly—but not inexorably. If they grind slowly enough, they may even come, unaccountably, to a gradual stop, short of the trial and judgment an ordinary citizen expects when accused of criminal contempt. There is just one compensating thought: Hubris is grist for other mills, which grind exceeding small and sure.”
Wisdom took senior status in 1977 but never fully retired from the bench. In 1993 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. Bill Clinton. Wisdom died on 15 May 1999.
- Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes (1981)