Remembering Mississippi, 1964-65

— interview with Claudia Morcom

CLAUDIA MORCOM SERVED as a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge from 1983 through 1998. She has been active throughout her life in civil and human rights causes. She was interviewed in Against the Current 101 (November-December 2002) about her experience at the World Congress Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, immediately prior to the 9/11 attacks, and a lawyers’ delegation to Palestine in summer 2002 (http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/716).

Dianne Feeley and David Finkel from the ATC editorial board spoke with Judge Morcom about her work in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964 and subsequently from September 1964 through October 1965, as Southern Regional Director for the National Lawyers Guild’s program of legal assistance for civil rights workers. We began by asking her about her background and what drew her to Freedom Summer.

Claudia Morcom: I grew up in Detroit; my parents had come from Mississippi. In 1956 I graduated from Law School at Wayne State University, where I’d also attended as an undergraduate. I was lucky to have won a scholarship from the Black Shriners — I think the law school today costs around $75,000 for three years.

But no firm was hiring women in those years. My friend and I set up a little law office. I had a fulltime job with the City of Detroit Housing Commission. But I’d stop by on my lunch hour. Elvin Davenport, the only Black judge in those days, would give us assignments; the white judges would give us assignments for $75 and ask for $25 as their “commission.” The first year we made about $750.

At that time the Michigan state bar had put up a new building in Lansing. On the train to the dedication, Dean Robb, representing the National Lawyers Guild, welcomed everyone as we came on board. It turned out that the two of us were the only women on the trip.

Two years later, I got a call from Dean Robb inviting me to work for what was the first integrated law firm in the country, Goodman-Crockett-Eden-Robb-Philo. Harry Philo and I came into the firm at the same time.

ATC: How did you get involved in Freedom Summer?

CM: I became involved through the NLG, handling cases. I didn’t get to meet the young people at the time. The kids came from all over. The organizers were going to make this a major event — they were going all over the country, recruiting doctors, lawyers, to get commitments from people who could come down for Freedom Summer.

George Crockett (who served as a judge from 1966-78 and congressman from 1980-91 — ed.) decided to go down to Mississippi. Anna Diggs Taylor (later a Federal District Judge — ed.) and I came on the same plane, but we were only going for a week. We arrived just as the three civil rights workers — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — had disappeared. The next day Anna and George drove from Jackson to Meridian looking to find out about the three missing men. The sheriff didn’t provide them with any information and gave them very convoluted driving directions (easily overheard by onlookers). Anna told us how George drove away in exactly the opposite direction, so luckily they returned safely.

Meanwhile my job had been to go to Parchman State Prison, to speak to a young woman arrested on a misdemeanor, and whose parents were very upset. The warden’s secretary refused me entry because she said they didn’t know if I was who I claimed to be.

We stayed for the week writing release petitions and the like, but at the end of the summer there were so many court cases that the Guild couldn’t leave them behind. Locally there were only three African-American lawyers and one white lawyer who would handle the cases for the entire state of Mississippi. The Guild decided they would set up an office; they needed someone to staff it for a year.

I told Crockett that I had family in Mississippi, that as a woman I felt I’d be reasonably safe, and since someone had to do it, I’d be a good choice. The night before I left my dad, who’d never had such a long discussion with me — three or four hours long — sat me down and told me about how dangerous Mississippi was.  He wanted to make sure I understood what I’d be getting into.

When George Crockett had been down for the summer, he’d found a house just outside Tougaloo College. The owner was a professor Sanders, who had been my parents’ professor when they attended Alcorn College! The professor’s house became a center where other lawyers could stay while they were in town. With so many male lawyers coming and going, the woman who cleaned the house thought at first maybe I was a madam.

Early that winter I was talking on the phone to my best friend. She had been planning on coming with me when I was going to be assigned to Louisiana. But when I was reassigned to Mississippi, she told me “I’m gone.” She asked me what was the loud clicks she kept hearing. I told her it was mouse traps going off. There were gaps in the floorboards and so the field mice were coming in. She reported that to George Crockett, who talked to the landlord. He had linoleum put in to eliminate that particular problem.

ATC: What was the focus of your work in the Jackson office?

CM: I had one secretary, Carolyn, a young Black woman Crockett had found. We were assigned cases from all over Mississippi. My home in Tougaloo was 20 minutes from our office, which was located in a building that the Black Shriners owned. The Mississippi community was very grateful to have us there and bringing in all the lawyers.

Doctors and lawyers came down for weeks or months, and I was there for a year, from September ’64 till October ’65. During that time — because my name at the time was Shropshire and given that my grandmother was Native American — it turned out that Carolyn didn’t realize I was Black!

We had to drive all the way to Oxford for a relatively decent federal judge to sign release papers, because Judge Cox in Jackson wouldn’t. We were always driving somewhere. The county justices of the peace weren’t really judges, many were farmers and had very little legal background. We were scared when cars drove past us. We were being watched every day.

One day we arrived late in Oxford, and went directly to the judge’s home. He told us to go into court the next morning and the orders would be signed. So we had to stay at a Holiday Inn. Rita Schwerner (the widow of murdered civil rights worker Michael Schwerner — ed.) had accompanied me. I asked her to go in and get a room for us. We couldn’t go the restaurant together so we ordered room service. One Black hotel worker took our order, then shortly afterwards another Black hotel worker stopped by to check on the order. Still another brought us our dinner, and finally the chef came in his dress uniform. I asked them what was going on and they said they’d never seen a white and Black together on equal terms.

Sometimes I worked with lawyers on cases but mostly I was in the office. So many people were being arrested! I told the Guild they had to send more lawyers down. They did send a young lawyer, who arrived at the same time that Myron Wahls (subsequently a distinguished Detroit judge, and also an accomplished jazz pianist — ed.) did. The two went to talk to these rural ”judges” about getting people out of jail. That other lawyer felt so intimidated he left the very next day.

Of course we wanted to participate in all the action and decided to join a march over the Pettus Bridge. But when I called to report to George Crockett and mentioned our decision, he said, “who’s going to get you out of jail?” I had to be reminded that I was the legal staff, not playing the activist role…

ATC: How do you summarize the experience?

CM: I was so proud. We brought so many Guild lawyers (Ernie Goodman was NLG president at the time). There were so many wonderful people — college kids, young people and old, Black and white, willing to risk their lives to be there and try to change things. I also remember an interracial couple, both lawyers, who came down from Kentucky to work.

I didn’t know the young SNCC people at the time. Later I came to know them (referring to some of the people in Hands on the Freedom Plow — ed.) I only met John Hardy (who set up freedom schools and helped register people in Mississippi in the early 1960s — ed.) when he moved into the same apartment complex where I live in Detroit.

I’ve only gotten to know Dorothy Aldridge (from Friends of SNCC in Detroit) when we were working together with Lucius Walker on the Cuban 5 case with IFCO (Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization).

As for those SNCC kids, they were fearless. When I and people who were in SNCC talk about our experiences to students today, they don’t know anything about it. They’re amazed.

May/June 2014, ATC 170

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