Though he was a product of the Old South, John Minor Wisdom helped pave the way for a new Southern order. Wisdom was one of the four judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that helped overturn desegregation and end racial discrimination. Wisdom, though, was the son of a New Orleans businessman who had fought for the White League in the Battle of Liberty Place. Wisdom said he wasn’t exposed to diversity until he went to Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He later returned to Tulane University for law school and started a law firm.
Though he was just one of four judges on the 5th Circuit, his fellow judges credited him with writing many of the landmark decisions, including the 1962 ruling that the University of Mississippi must admit James Meredith, a black student. Wisdom also overturned the “Briggs dictum,” followed by many southern judges that the U.S. constitution did not require integration, but simply forbade discrimination.
At the time, Wisdom said “The only school desegregation plan that meets constitutional standards is one that works.”
Another ruling struck down a Louisiana law that required African-American voters to interpret passages of the U.S. constitution before voting.
Wisdom’s legacy was secure, though, before he was ever on the bench. He played a pivotal role in helping Dwight Eisenhower win the 1952 Republican nomination and in turn, when he became president, Eisenhower appointed Wisdom to the appeals court.
Wisdom semi-retired in 1977, but he kept hearing cases until he died in 1999. He was awarded the presidential medal of freedom in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. The appeals court building on Camp Street was named after Wisdom in 1994.