Gordon Martin, a JP resident and former judge, tells the story of a successful suit against a Mississippi registrar.
By Grahame Turner
In “Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote,” JP resident and former judge Gordon Martin tells a story through the witnesses who helped him build a landmark civil rights case.
Martin grew up in West Roxbury, and says his time at Roxbury Latin prepared him for his experiences in Mississippi. He moved to JP after getting married and then lived in Newton for over 40 years. He recently downsized and moved back to JP.
In 1961, many of the black citizens of Hattiesburg, Miss. were denied the right to vote. Martin was among a number of lawyers who traveled to the state to build a case against Forrest Country registrar Theron Lynd.
“This was at a time when we unfortunately didn’t have an appellate court which was sensitive to the needs of the black community,” said Martin during a recent panel at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
With him was his Civil Rights Division boss, John Doar; Helen McCullough, daughter of B.F. Bourn, one of Martin’s witnesses; and former ABC anchor Carol Simpson, who moderated the panel.
Many of the black voters were forced to fill out an intensive application. Photocopies of two such applications were given to attendees at the panel: one from Reverend Sam Hall and one from Addie Burger, a school teacher. Both were told to copy a section from the state constitution, and then interpret that section. Burger’s interpretation was so thorough, she required a second sheet of paper to complete it. Both applicants were denied the right to vote.
By contrast, “If you were white and breathed, you were registered to vote,” Doar said.
They had found a number of black residents willing to speak about their registration experiences. To strengthen the case, they wanted to find some white voters who had no problems registering in Lynd’s office. However, the voting records were blocked to them. They eventually found some witnesses through local yearbooks, with the help of the FBI.
“Count them One by One” is a story about the human side of the case. Martin first started work on the book in 1989, after spending some time as a judge on the Roxbury district court.
The book is full of photographs of people Martin speaks and writes about like they are old friends. B.F. Bourn, Hall and Burger are among the faces of people who come to life in this book.
“He’s gotten to know these people he’s written about, and he knows them very well.” Doar said of Martin’s book, “I don’t know anybody who has put the human side of this like he has.”
To some, the Civil Rights movement is little more than words on the page of a history book. This is precisely the reason that the subject of Martin’s book remains important.
“[Younger] generations really don’t understand what African-Americans have gone through. Most of the books that have been written, and there have been a lot, have been about the leaders: Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy,” Martin explains. “But the local people aren’t known, and local people are the crucial ones, because the justice department and the civil rights organizations moved in where the local people were active.”
Gordon Martin – COUNT THEM ONE BY ONE: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote
The personal account of a community and a lawyer united to battle one of the most recalcitrant bastions of resistance to civil rights
Gordon A. Martin, Jr., a retired Massachusetts trial judge who as a young lawyer for the Justice Dept during the Kennedy administration prepared the first big voting rights case brought in Mississippi.
In 1961, Forrest County, Mississippi, became a focal point of the civil rights movement when the United States Justice Department filed a lawsuit against its voting registrar Theron Lynd. While 30 percent of the county’s residents were black, only twelve black persons were on its voting rolls. United States v. Lynd was the first trial that resulted in the conviction of a southern registrar for contempt of court. The case served as a model for other challenges to voter discrimination in the South and was an important influence in shaping the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Count Them One by One is a comprehensive account of the groundbreaking case written by one of the Justice Department’s trial attorneys. Gordon Martin, then a newly minted lawyer, traveled to Hattiesburg from Washington to help shape the federal case against Lynd. He met with and prepared the government’s sixteen courageous black witnesses who had been refused registration, found white witnesses, and was one of the lawyers during the trial.
Decades later, Martin returned to Mississippi to find these brave men and women he had never forgotten. He interviewed the still-living witnesses, their children, and friends. Martin intertwines these current reflections with vivid commentary about the case itself. The result is an impassioned, cogent fusion of reportage, oral history, and memoir about a trial that fundamentally reshaped liberty and the South.
As a young lawyer Judge Gordon Martin, Jr. was one of many quiet heroes, Black and White, who worked together in the South to change the world. In this compelling book he tells the story of the people behind United States v. Theron Lynd with vivid detail, preserving a key piece of American and civil rights history.
-Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund, who litigated in Mississippi in the 1960s
To know the reality of the Deep South 50 years ago is to understand that a miracle has occurred in this country. Gordon Martin dramatically shows us that reality in “Count Them One by One”: cynical officials ruling that black college graduates were not qualified to register as voters, Americans murdered for trying to vote. The idea that a black man would be President in our lifetime was simply unimaginable then. It changed because incredibly brave black citizens of the South risked their lives to win their rights, and the national government eventually responded. Martin shows how difficult the change was, what courage and determination were required.
-Anthony Lewis, Pulitzer Prize Winner, former Supreme Court Reporter of the New York Times
Gordon A. Martin,
Jr., Boston, Massachusetts, is a retired trial judge and an adjunct professor at New England Law Boston. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, Commonweal, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, various law reviews, and other periodicals. He has co-authored a civil rights casebook, and is a graduate of Harvard College and New York University School of Law.
Videoconference was a great start to BHM! It was an event involving all Mission Canada, i.e. all posts, as well as the US Embassy in Ottawa. The audience was very diverse: immigrants, aboriginals, students, lawyers, Canadians, Americans, black, white, Asian. We had a couple of students from Fairleigh Dickinson (Downtown campus), and members of the US Consulate staff both American and Canadian. Everyone was very moved, some of us to actual tears, by Dr. Martin’s achievements, all his work during the civil rights era and not lastly, his superb character!