Answering a historic call: As a young lawyer, retired Circuit Court Judge Claudia Morcom journeyed to Mississippi fight for civil rights

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Claudia Morcom, who would later become a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge, had been enjoying a comfortable life in her native Detroit back in 1964 when she decided to move to the most racist, segregated state in the country.

She knew all about Mississippi. Her parents had grown up there, so she knew what it was like for "coloreds;" how they had to picnic in cemeteries because they weren't allowed in the parks, how there were lynchings, and "Coloreds Only" signs, and a feeling of living under apartheid.

Morcom knew her year in Jackson, Miss., wouldn't be easy.

She also knew the National Lawyer's Guild was calling for lawyers around the country to come down to give legal assistance to defendants in civil rights cases, to register blacks to vote, and file lawsuits to desegregate public facilities so that blacks, too, could freely walk into a library, gas station, museum, swimming pool.

And so she answered that call to become what southern whites would call "an outside agitator."

She did it, she said, because the work needed to be done. And because those who had risked their lives to advance civil rights needed to know that somebody cared.

Morcom says it's good that the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders received some media attention this month because it reminds people of the important civil rights work that went on in the South back in the 60s.

The Freedom Riders were the hundreds of Americans who risked their lives from May to November in 1961 to fight for the desegregation of public transportation in the south.

"Young people don't know -- nobody tells the story," she said. "This year was the first year it's been on television ... The story needs to be told continually -- even though it was 50 years ago."

On the day she arrived in Mississippi in June of 1964, she learned that three young civil rights workers -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- had disappeared.

The three had been registering black voters in Mississippi and had left to investigate the burning of a black church. After being arrested by police on trumped-up charges, they were released to the Ku Klux Klan, and murdered.

Morcom knew she wasn't in Detroit anymore.

"I was a little afraid," she said. "I was a little afraid a lot."

At that time, blacks were 54 percent of the population in Mississippi, but only about 200 blacks were registered to vote.

Morcom helped correct unfair practices that would change that. Because the lawyers couldn't get any justice in the courts in Mississippi, they tried to have cases moved to federal court.

"At that time, the federal court was the only place we could find justice," she said.

But it wasn't easy even then. At that time, every person involved in a court case was required to have individual papers drawn up about him or her, which meant the lawyers would type them up and drive them to a federal court in Oxford to be notarized and filed. (There were no black notaries in Jackson, and the white notaries wouldn't sign them.)

Morcom said she and her fellow lawyers put about 100,000 miles on her donated station wagon that year.

But they never doubted that it was worth the trouble.

"Because of what the lawyers did, the world became aware of what was going on in Mississippi," said Morcom.

Sometimes the results weren't what they'd hoped for. A desegregation case against a municipality in Mississippi would be won, for instance. But instead of opening a public pool to all races, municipalities would sometimes close them to everyone.

Still, the work continued because there was so much work to be done.

Morcom, who was the first African American woman to work in an integrated law firm in Detroit, said there is still much work to be done to advance the cause of human rights.

Since retiring from the bench in 1998, she has written reports to the United Nations on behalf of two human rights groups, and has spoken about what she believes is the inhumane practice of sentencing juvenile criminals who were "along for the ride" to life in prison without parole.

She also works on behalf of the International Defense Committee for the Cuban Five.

Morcom wishes more young people would become motivated to activism.

"We're having problems with our young black males dropping out of school," she said. "If they had something they could really feel was necessary to be done to make a change in the world, I think we could get more of them interested in their schooling, donating their services, intelligence and skills to other people."

Published: Thu, May 26, 2011

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