Attorneys R. Jess Brown, Carsie A. Hall, and Jack H. Young Sr. took on the enormous task of handling most of the significant civil rights cases in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, and they paved the way for other black lawyers in the state. Overcoming the structural barriers that discouraged African Americans from practicing law in the state, the three attorneys helped dismantle legalized segregation by representing hundreds of litigants and defendants who challenged Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws.
Prior to 1962, most of Mississippi’s white lawyers were reluctant to handle civil rights cases, and the state’s only accredited law school was closed to African Americans. Aspiring black attorneys had to leave the state to study law and then return to pass the Mississippi bar exam, from which the white graduates of the University of Mississippi Law School were exempt. As late as 1965 only a handful of the state’s twenty-two hundred lawyers were African Americans.
Jack Harvey Young was born in Jackson on 9 March 1908. He attended Jim Hill Elementary School, where he was a schoolmate of author Richard Wright, and Smith-Robinson School. Since the city had no public high school that admitted black students, Young enrolled in the high school department of Jackson College in 1923. There he met Carsie A. Hall. One of their professors, A. A. Latting, encouraged them to pursue law. Young graduated from Jackson College in 1931 and Hall a year later. Both men worked full time for the Jackson Post Office until the late 1940s, when they persuaded a former Mississippian, Sidney R. Redmund, to guide their study of the law. When in town from his practice in St. Louis, Redmund tutored Young and Hall and lent them his law books and notes from Harvard Law School. Young passed the Mississippi bar exam in 1951, while Hall did so the following year. Hall recalled that when he went to take the exam, he had to enter the Heidelberg Hotel through the rear entrance and ascend to the examining room in the freight elevator.
Richard Jess Brown was born in Coffeeville, Kansas, on 2 September 1912 and spent most of his childhood in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He graduated from Illinois State University and received a master of education degree from the University of Indiana in 1942. In the late 1940s Brown came to Mississippi and taught industrial arts at Alcorn College, Lanier High School, and Campbell College. In 1948 he signed on as a coplaintiff with Gladys Noel Bates in her suit against the Jackson School Board seeking equalization of teacher’s salaries. Like Bates, Brown lost his teaching position. He then decided to become an attorney. He attended Texas Southern Law School before returning to Mississippi in 1953, when he passed the state bar exam.
Brown, Hall, and Young subsequently worked to curb the state’s renewed efforts to disenfranchise black voters, provided criminal defense throughout the state, and worked to develop support systems for other black lawyers. In 1956, two years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mississippi adopted new rules to tighten the already stringent voter registration process, requiring applicants not only to read a section of the Mississippi Constitution but also to provide a “reasonable” interpretation of it. In addition, applicants needed to register at the county courthouse rather than in local election precincts or other satellite offices. Officials in several counties also purged the voter rolls and required people to reregister, another strategy for removing black voters. After Jefferson Davis County registrars disqualified more than a thousand black voters in 1958, Brown, funded in part by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed a federal suit to challenge the state’s rules. During this time Hall became president of the Jackson Chapter of the NAACP.
Numerous black defendants employed the three attorneys in criminal cases, many of them involving alleged black-on-white crimes. Brown defended Mack Parker, who was accused of raping a white woman near Poplarville. With the victim unable to identify her assailant, prosecutors built their case around forced confessions from some of Parker’s acquaintances. Before the trial a white mob seized Parker from jail and shot him, disposing of his body in the Pearl River. The Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into Parker’s lynching, but a local grand jury never returned an indictment. Brown also led the defense of Clyde Kennard, who was trying to enroll at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) when police arrested him for possession of liquor, which someone had planted in his car. Brown, Young, and Hall also encouraged the work of other black attorneys: they were among the eight founding members of the Magnolia Bar Association, an African American group formed in 1955.
With the spread of the sit-in phase of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Brown, Hall, and Young labored to free activists from jail and defend them in courts throughout Mississippi. In 1961 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund contracted with the three attorneys to handle civil rights cases in the state. For the next several years, the men sometimes worked in tandem with William Kunstler and other out-of-state lawyers and with outside legal groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law and the Lawyers’ Constitutional Defense Committee. In March 1961 Young defended nine Tougaloo students and NAACP Youth Council members after Jackson police arrested them for their sit-in at the whites-only downtown public library. Two months after the Tougaloo Nine trial, Brown, Hall, and Young became involved in the defense of the more than three hundred Freedom Riders whom police arrested in Jackson, cases that dragged on for years. Brown joined a bevy of NAACP attorneys as the local counsel representing James Meredith in his ultimately successful fight to gain admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. In 1963 the three attorneys defended the more than six hundred African Americans, most of them under the age of eighteen, who participated in the Jackson movement demonstrations. In late 1963 and early 1964 Brown provided the local counsel for the dozens of men and women whom police arrested for attempting to desegregate white churches in Jackson. During the Freedom Summer of 1964 the three crisscrossed the state to defend activists in jail.
For the rest of their legal careers, Brown, Hall, and Young strove to ensure that their clients received equal treatment before the law and often tackled cases involving alleged black-on-white crimes. Brown became counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and helped reverse many convictions by proving discrimination in jury selection.
- Crisis (December 1976)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Worth Long, Southern Changes (December 1983)
- George Alexander Sewell and Margaret L. Dwight, eds., Mississippi Black History Makers (1984)
- Grace Simmons, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (2 January 1990)
- US Commission on Civil Rights, Justice in Jackson, Mississippi: Hearings Held in Jackson, Miss., February 16–20, 1965, vol. 2 (1971)