Reconstruction, about once a century

July 04, 1996|By Ray Jenkins

WHEN ELBERT Tuttle arrived in Atlanta in the 1920s to begin his legal career, his neighbors no doubt speculated in whispered tones that he must be one of those "Reconstruction Republicans" who had come to meddle in the affairs of the South. Little did they -- or he himself, for that matter -- know just how right they were.

Elbert Parr Tuttle, who died 10 days ago, sound of mind to the very end of his 98 years, exemplified that vanishing species known as "the Eisenhower judge" -- the federal magistrates who assumed the thankless task of reshaping the social landscape of the South for all time.

Like most of his colleagues, Tuttle was an improbable hero. Born in California, reared in Hawaii, Tuttle served briefly in the First World War, attended an Ivy League college, and moved South when he married a "Southern belle," in the gracious language of the day.

Although he did not set out to be a crusader, he quickly discovered that even enlightened Atlanta was not a hospitable place for those who deviated from what was called "the Southern way of life." He became known as the only lawyer in town who would take cases like that of Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer who was arrested for passing out pamphlets on the steps of the Atlanta post office. Charged with "insurrection," Herndon was summarily sentenced to 20 years by the Georgia courts, but Tuttle appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction in an important early civil-liberties precedent.

Tuttle was already in his forties at the outbreak of the Second World War and easily could have gained deferment on age, but he volunteered for service and earned his Purple Heart in combat in the Pacific.

Parlor politics

After the war he plunged into Republican politics -- which in those days was little more than a parlor game in a state like Georgia -- and was instrumental in the ascendancy of Dwight Eisenhower. He was serving in a top position in the Treasury when he was offered appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court which covered the Deep South. At that time federal judgeships were considered prestigious sinecures for loyal foot soldiers in political campaigns, so Tuttle jumped at the chance to "retire" to the Fifth Circuit.

A prescient friend cautioned him that the Supreme Court had just rendered its fateful school-desegregation decision of 1954. Tuttle's cavalier response was, "Oh, give them a little time, they'll fall into line."

So he took the job -- and plunged into a maelstrom of change that would require the better part of two decades to complete. Tuttle served as the circuit's chief judge for the most crucial of those years, and at times the acrimony was so palpable that even his fellow federal judges -- throwbacks to the Old Order -- would denounce Tuttle for his single-minded determination to eradicate racial discrimination in schools, voting rights, jury service and public employment.

In assessing his remarkable career, it is fair to say that Elbert Tuttle and his fellow "Eisenhower judges" were uniquely suited to the task that befell them. Since judgeships were dispensed on the basis of political patronage in those days, the Democrats who were appointed judges tended to dutifully reflect the prevailing hard-line racial sentiments of their state machines. The few Republicans of the region did not carry such heavy baggage.

Now, with the South becoming increasingly as solidly Republican as it was solidly Democratic when Tuttle was a young man, the Republican judges are beginning to reflect the prevailing sentiments of the rising Southern political stars of Congress -- men like Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Phil Gramm and Dick Armey.

Autre temps, autre moeurs

Just a few months before Elbert Tuttle died, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down affirmative action in college admissions -- a decision that, last week, the Supreme Court allowed to stand. It is inconceivable that the Fifth Circuit would have rendered such a decision at the time that Elbert Tuttle was its chief judge.

Today the federal courthouse in Atlanta bears the name of Elbert Parr Tuttle -- a fitting testimony, most would say, to the change the man wrought in his 42 tumultuous years of service as a federal judge. Tuttle and his fellow "Eisenhower judges" had taken up where Reconstruction had been abandoned, in a shabby political compromise in the 1870s, and completed the job a century later.

Tuttle's goal was always clear: an integrated society in which color was irrelevant. And yet, one who surveys the racial climate in America today cannot but wonder if even so inveterate an optimist as Tuttle would quietly wonder whether the goal has been only superficially achieved.

A spate of new books, by white and black writers alike, question the success of Elbert Tuttle's great labor. Tom Wicker, who as a New York Times columnist was a tireless advocate of racial accommodation, has just published a book entitled "Tragic Failure" -- by which he means integration.

Whether he read Wicker's book or not, Elbert Tuttle must have felt in his old bones that as the 20th century drew to a close, Reconstruction was once more about to be abandoned, incompleted, just as it was a century before.

Ray Jenkins is the retired editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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