Gordon A. Martin Jr. is a retired Massachusetts trial judge whose book “Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote,” accurately and respectfully chronicles the story of the people who challenged an unfair voting registration process and forever changed America.
The core story takes place in Mississippi in 1961. It revolves around the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against voting registrar Theron Lynd. At that time 30 per cent of the population in Forrest County, Mississippi was African American, yet only 12 of 7,500 were on the voting rolls. These 12 souls braved community abuses, obstacles including denial of their rights and loss of their jobs.
“One can understand intellectually what denial of the vote to black people was – but the experience of getting to know, hard working people, some veterans, many with advanced degrees often in lesser jobs…. the real toll…can only be imagined,” said Judge Martin.
United States vs. Lynd was the first trial that resulted in the conviction of a southern registrar for contempt of court. The case became a model for other challenges to voter discrimination in the South and was influential in shaping the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Change was not immediate but it began in that decade.
On the Job
“I was like so many young people, just out of school and starting out in life with a new job. I was a young lawyer who got thrown into a particular case, underpaid, entrusted, little experience, no time to think,” said Martin.
As a newly minted lawyer, he traveled to Hattiesburg from Washington to help shape the federal case against Lynd. He met with and prepared the government’s 16 courageous black witnesses who had been refused registration, found white witnesses, and was one of the lawyers during the trial. He wasn’t alone of course. Not only was he working under a section head, supervising his learning experience, but this case had the ear and interest of powers at the top.
“Fifty years ago, the U.S. attorney general, in his first day on the job, walked into the office of his acting assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, John Doar. Robert F. Kennedy wanted to know what was going on, what lawsuits were pending, how the right to vote for African-Americans would be achieved.” (excerpted)
Doar, a Wisconsin Republican, had a history in the federal administration with the Civil Rights Division, first in the Eisenhower administration and then in action as a key figure in the Kennedy Justice Department.
Together, Kennedy and Doar saw serious patterns of inequity in a map of the South. Colored pins graphically pointed to trouble in Forrest County in south-eastern Mississippi. That trouble began in 1958 when Theron Lynd was elected registrar of Forrest County. All four candidates in that election had made clear their goal to preserve the essentially all-white electorate of the county.
Process towards progress
Three years into his office, 16 African-Americans from widely diverse backgrounds were ready to testify against Lynd and his tactics to ignore, frustrate and deny the ministers, factory workers, shopkeepers, teachers with master’s degrees from such universities as Wisconsin, Columbia, Cornell and NYU to try to register. Later, one of the leaders of the black community, Vernon Dahmer, was murdered by the White Knights of the Klan for his role in voter registration.
One of the tools Lynd had at his disposal to reject bids for registration was the literacy test. The legal team, without records, came up with 16 contrasting white witnesses either registered without being required to take the literacy test or given a simple section of the state constitution to interpret.
During the trial, the witnesses testified for three days. The federal judge allowed a 30-day continuance but did not issue an injunction. This failure opened the door to appeal and the Court of Appeals agreed and entered its own order, barring discrimination. Lynd strengthened by his history of steady abuse of process violated the order within days.
The team brought three more trials, two for contempt, just to deal with that one county. From the realization that a county by county effort was ineffective, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was brought in to abolish the literacy test and authorized federal registrars to step in. It took till the end of the decade before the shameful southern racial voting discrimination was eradicated along with individual and non standard state control of the process.
Each precious witness’s thoughts and life circumstances are fascinatingly conveyed in the book. Martin who never forgot each of those incredible people began going back to piece the past together as of 1989. More mature and with the benefit of hindsight and experience his conversation with The Afro News brought out interesting applications to today.
Current challenges and future forecasts
While Judge Martin is American and can’t speak to Canadian and international laws and specifics of experience, his journey raises some comments on our current state of affairs.
On the importance of the vote to all sectors of society
“We cannot be complacent about the access achieved then. The ballot must be intelligible to all, particularly our newest citizens. Voter ID laws must be scrutinized carefully. Felon disenfranchisement laws that are an impediment to meaningful re-entry to society should be eliminated. And each generation of new voters must recognize the efforts made by many of their forebears to be able to vote, and understand that their vote does count and may just make a difference.”
Martin is still concerned with people securing their vote and of developing a sense of belonging and community development for all sectors of the American population.
“I’m disappointed that franchise is not valued more. Kennedy worked to eliminate the great social wrong. Now what percentage of the electorate votes? What can have them value it more?”
And, just as any who sacrificed and worked to bring about change, the next immediate generations are born into it and just accept it as a birthright and normal. Martin suggests that the education and engagement starts as early as possible, certainly by high school.
“Young black people need to know their history, not just white people.”
“Change that occurred in American society was phenomenal. Such change would not have been possible if black people were not allowed to vote. Some of the results began with Jesse Jackson’s activity and bid for leadership and led to Barack Obama.”
On what society is doing with the freedom they have
“Youth driven revolution in Egypt came from people being seriously disturbed by the conditions they found themselves in, not organizations, but young people. Youth support made a clear difference for Obama”
Regrettably, notes Martin, the drop off in youth vote two years later (after Obama) shows young people are not as involved. “Partly it’s the rallying cry of the campaign giving way to the harsh realities of the decisions that must be made”
The continued role of youth
People can clearly make a difference and Martin has been witness to that. “Our youth is capable of doing a lot. Political participation is open to all. Desire, motivation and understanding are needed.
In closing our conversation, Martin was quite impassioned about his experience with the exceptional people he encountered in the course of the case that formed the book. His has great encouragement for all to get involved to make a difference, noting it is not only the great names we all recognize like Martin Luther King Jr. and others. “Promotion of this book in the south allowed me to revisit the original people who stood up at great risk to vote, to be called properly by name and to brave physical harm. It has allowed all to know their story and to touch history”
“Reform,” concluded Martin, “is a word that is often misused. It is change people really mean, change per se with a direction.” A step into history might be just what is needed to go forward with a plan.
Chapters in the life of Judge Gordon Martin Jr.
If anything about a career such as Judge Martin’s illustrates it’s that we need to reframe retirement as resource rich. Our retired people are resources at large and we should all take advantage of the depth of knowledge gained only by time and applied experience. Some of his milestones include:
• First Assistant United States Attorney and later Special Assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy and a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, one of the three oldest state anti-discrimination agencies.
• Visiting Professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2000, teaching Civil Rights and Legal Ethics. He is an adjunct professor at New England Law Boston, where he is teaching Civil Rights this semester.
• Co-authored a civil rights casebook and written more than thirty chapters, articles and op-ed pieces.
• One of the Civil Rights Division lawyers of the 1960s honored with the 2009 Humanitarian Award of the Choral Arts Society of Washington at its Annual Tribute to Dr. King.
• Even as a retired trial judge he is an adjunct professor at New England School of Law. 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.
• Martin is a graduate of Roxbury Latin, Harvard College and New York University School of Law and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife Stephanie.
In addition to his career activity and contributions, Judge Martin and his wife Stephanie, his partner in life and his career, now enjoy the four citizens of the world they raised and the reward of grandchildren.
ABOUT THE BOOK“Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote,” is a comprehensive account of a groundbreaking case where a lawyer and a community were united to bring down one of the most recalcitrant bastions of resistance to civil rights.The author, Judge Gordon Martin Jr. interviewed the still-living witnesses, their children, and friends. Having been an onsite witness himself Martin intertwines their modern day reflections with his own expert and vivid commentary about the case itself. To any reader’s delight, the result is a clearly passionate mix of reportage, oral history, and memoir about a trial that fundamentally reshaped liberty and the South.