by Joel William Friedman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 376pp. Hardcover. $49.95 ISBN: 9780807133842.

Reviewed by Brett W. Curry, Department of Political Science, Georgia Southern University. Email: bcurry [at]


In many ways, Judge John Minor Wisdom’s was a life of contradiction. Though he is known today as a pioneering appellate judge who contributed to numerous civil rights advances for African Americans, few would have expected the genteel Eisenhower Republican to follow such a path. Born in the segregated South to a socially prominent Louisiana family, his father was a cotton broker and a Democrat. Wisdom was also one of the rare sons of the Bible Belt to have little use for organized religion (p.10). Moreover, even as Judge Wisdom advanced the cause of civil rights as a member of the “Fifth Circuit Four,” breaking down racial barriers in opinion after opinion, he maintained memberships in racially restrictive clubs (p.xi). Ultimately, President Bill Clinton best summed up this tension when he awarded Judge Wisdom the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994: “He is a son of the Old South who became an architect of the new South” (p.374).

As one of the twentieth century’s most formidable jurists, John Minor Wisdom has not wanted for scholarly attention. Wisdom’s dedication to enforcing the promise of BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION merited his inclusion as one of Jack Bass’ (1990) “Unlikely Heroes.” Peltason (1971) termed him one of the “Fifty-Eight Lonely Men” charged with carrying out school desegregation in the South. Despite the scholarly interest Wisdom has engendered, Joel William Friedman’s judicial biography paints a comprehensive portrait of the man, based on personal interviews, historical materials, and – most importantly – Wisdom’s judicial opinions themselves. In doing so, Friedman has produced a thoughtful, evenhanded appraisal of Wisdom’s life and work – topics surely deserving of a stand-alone biography.

John Minor Wisdom was born on May 17, 1905 – forty nine years to the day before the Supreme Court razed the separate but equal doctrine in BROWN. As Friedman’s careful narrative makes clear, Wisdom’s mother had a profound influence on his worldview and, ultimately, his judicial career. She “instilled in all three of her sons the notion that everyone was entitled to be treated fairly and with dignity, regardless of their personal circumstances or station in life . . . If and when they were in a position to do anything about it, they should strive to ensure that everyone was given a fair shake” (p.12).

One of the major manifestations of Wisdom’s commitment to fair play was his alignment with the Republican Party. According to Friedman, Wisdom’s active involvement in the Louisiana Republican Party principally resulted from his view that healthy democratic [*367] government was “incompatible with a one-party system” (p.46).

Once he became a Republican, Wisdom quickly aligned himself against the state party’s longtime leader, John E. Jackson. As leader of the party’s “Lilywhite” faction, Jackson controlled the State Central Committee and effectively used the organization to distribute patronage positions. The growing schism between the Jackson and Wisdom wings of the state party was ultimately reflected in the battle for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. Jackson and the entrenched party cadre supported Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft; Wisdom and his sympathizers supported Eisenhower, believing the former general “offered the best opportunity for bringing about a rethinking of the old attitudes that had contributed to keeping the party small in southern states and out of the White House” (p.53). Wisdom led the Eisenhower forces in Louisiana, while his future Fifth Circuit colleague Elbert Tuttle headed the Eisenhower coalition in Georgia.

After Eisenhower was elected president, with Wisdom playing an integral role in his nomination by the Republican Party, the future judge found himself involved with nearly every federal appointment or project involving the state of Louisiana. (p.81). In 1957, he was nominated by Eisenhower and confirmed to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

In the years after BROWN, the Fifth Circuit heard more civil rights cases than any other appellate court in the nation (p.182). And, during that time, John Minor Wisdom became known as one of the “Fifth Circuit Four.” Along with Chief Judge Elbert Tuttle, John Robert Brown, and Richard Rives, Wisdom would issue a series of decisions that advanced the cause of African American civil rights. That said, Wisdom did not invariably vote in a progressive manner on racial issues. For example, though he would come to regret the decision, in GOMILLION v. LIGHTFOOT Wisdom’s vote led the Fifth Circuit to reject a constitutional challenge lodged by African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama, to a state redistricting statute that significantly diluted the voting strength of the city’s black population.

In Chapter 8, Freidman chronicles one of the book’s most interesting episodes – Judge Wisdom’s role in the “Showdown in Mississippi.” That controversy involved both James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi and Governor Ross Barnett’s efforts to circumvent the Fifth Circuit’s decision in that case. Friedman skillfully discusses this high drama, referencing both public reactions to the decision (pp.154-155) and Fifth Circuit Judge Ben Cameron’s unprecedented efforts to meddle in the case, despite not having served on the three judge panel that decided it (pp.155-158).

While MEREDITH v. FAIR was one of Wisdom’s most high profile cases, UNITED STATES v. JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION is the focal point of Friedman’s discussion of Judge Wisdom’s lasting jurisprudential contributions. Indeed, Wisdom himself viewed it as his finest judicial opinion (p.200). In it, he gave detailed instructions to school boards and endorsed tough guidelines for the assignment of students and teachers to particular schools in order to achieve [*368] integration. According to Wisdom, “the only adequate redress for a previously overt system-wide policy of segregation directed against Negroes as a collective entity is a system-wide policy of integration” (p.220). Wisdom also devoted a portion of his opinion to discrediting the so-called “BRIGGS Doctrine,” enunciated by Judge John J. Parker in 1955. According to that dictum, while governments could not enforce segregation, integration was not required by the Constitution (Patterson 2001, 145). In dismantling the edifice of BRIGGS, Wisdom “brought judicial involvement in the schools to a plane undreamed of in the BROWN era and gave plaintiffs real reason to hope that they could force the dismantling of segregated school systems” (p.227).

In the book’s final chapter, Friedman recounts Judge Wisdom’s involvement in the oft-discussed campaign that eventually led to the division of the Fifth Circuit. Though chronicled in detail elsewhere (Barrow and Walker 1988), Friedman’s overview of the controversy underscores Wisdom’s commitment to both the Circuit’s preservation and its civil rights jurisprudence. Wisdom played an active role in opposing the Circuit’s division and, although he was ultimately unsuccessful, his actions did succeed in postponing the Circuit split for nearly two decades.

Joel William Friedman’s CHAMPION OF CIVIL RIGHTS: JUDGE JOHN MINOR WISDOM provides an intimate picture of “one of the most progressive and influential federal judges of the twentieth century” (p.2). In particular, Friedman’s work effectively conveys three of Judge Wisdom’s most central characteristics – his eloquence, his emphasis on practicality, and his general belief in the limited role of the judge.

Wisdom was, above all, pragmatic (pp.115, 216). When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once asked Judge Wisdom “whether it was better for a judge to be theoretical or practical,” Wisdom chose the latter (p.285) – and he displayed that trademark practicality in opinion after opinion. Perhaps the best example of his pragmatism is contained in UNITED STATES v. JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION where he succinctly noted, “The only school desegregation plan that meets constitutional standards is one that works” (p.211). Such statements, Justice William Brennan would later note, displayed Wisdom’s ability to “forthrightly ground [his opinions] in practical realities, rather than platitudinous theory” (p.212).

Friedman’s work also conveys Wisdom’s recognition of the limits on the judiciary. Wisdom never viewed his judicial role as “that of reformer” (p.191), and Friedman even notes that Wisdom believed “judicial micromanagement of school desegregation” to be “perilously close to the perimeter of the judicial function” (p.206). Finally, in an observation that echoes contemporary notions of “judicial minimalism” (Sunstein 1999), Friedman concludes that, “where a case could be decided on its specific facts, [Wisdom] felt no urgency to address far-reaching constitutional questions” (p.298).

Friedman also observes that the eloquence of Judge Wisdom’s opinions reflected, in part, his early interest in literature and grammar. According to “Wisdom’s Idiosyncrasies,” a style sheet [*369] which the judge would distribute to his incoming law clerks, they were to “state the key question in the first sentence” and “put the sex appeal in the first sentence and last sentence of each opinion” (p.122). Not surprisingly, then, Wisdom’s many opinions contained more than a few memorable phrases. In reversing District Judge Sidney Mize’s ruling against James Meredith in his case against the University of Mississippi, Wisdom opined that “This case was tried below and argued here in the eerie atmosphere of nevernever land” (p.151). In another case, expressing exasperation with the languid pace of desegregation efforts in the wake of BROWN, Wisdom pointedly proclaimed that “The clock has ticked the last tick for tokenism and delay in the name of ‘deliberate speed’” (p.214). Most famously, perhaps, he reconciled the equality required by the Fourteenth Amendment with what he viewed as the necessity of remedying the effects of past discrimination in JEFFERSON COUNTY saying, simply, “The Constitution is both color blind and color conscious” (p.214). In doing so, Friedman argues that Judge Wisdom played a critical role in laying the analytical foundation for affirmative action.

While Friedman’s work should be commended, there are two minor ways in which the book could have been strengthened. First, in my estimation, Friedman risks overstating President Eisenhower’s commitment to civil rights early in the book. He asserts that, in appointing Wisdom to the Fifth Circuit, the President “was looking for someone who would bring a sympathetic ear and unbiased judgment to [the Fifth Circuit’s] burgeoning caseload of civil rights disputes” (p.xi). In reality, however, the President’s views on civil rights were generally ambivalent, although his cabinet – principally his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell – was somewhat more aggressive (e.g., Pacelle 2003, 74- 81). At a minimum, additional elaboration on this point would have been useful. Second, while Friedman frames Wisdom’s affiliation with the Republican Party as a product of “his absolutely unshakeable conviction that a healthy democratic system demanded the existence of two vital, rival political parties” (p.43), he might have given greater emphasis to the role that Wisdom’s disenchantment with Democrat Huey P. Long likely played in shaping that decision (e.g., Gill 1997, 203). Friedman does address Wisdom’s personal and ideological disgust with Long (pp.45-46). However, in developing the more general theme that it was Wisdom’s innate sense of “fair play” that led him to the Republican Party, Friedman’s discussion implicitly downplays the Kingfish’s central role in catalyzing Wisdom’s political epiphany.

Aside from these admittedly trivial quibbles, I very much enjoyed reading Friedman’s work. It promises to be a useful addition to the field of judicial biography as well as scholarship on both the evolution of African American civil rights jurisprudence and Southern politics.

Barrow, Deborah J. and Thomas G. Walker. 1988. A COURT DIVIDED: THE FIFTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS AND THE POLITICS OF JUDICIAL REFORM. New Haven: Yale University Press. [*370]

Bass, Jack. 1990. UNLIKELY HEROES. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Gill, James. 1997. LORDS OF MISRULE: MARDI GRAS AND THE POLITICS OF RACE IN NEW ORLEANS. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi.




Sunstein, Cass R. 1999. ONE CASE AT A TIME: JUDICIAL MINIMALISM ON THE SUPREME COURT. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

BRIGGS v. ELLIOTT, 132 F. Supp. 776 (EDSC 1955).

GOMILLION v. LIGHTFOOT, 270 F.2d 594 (5th Circuit, 1959).

MEREDITH v. FAIR, 305 F.2d 343 (5th Circuit, 1962).


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Brett W. Curry.