Local judge publishes first-hand account of historic civil rights trial

January 21, 2011
By

Rebeca Oliveira


Courtesy Photo
Judge Gordon Martin is the author of “Count Them One by One.”

At the age of 27, Gordon Martin helped shape American history. In his recently published book, “Count Them One by One, Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote,” the Jamaica Plain resident and Massachusetts native revisits the small city in Mississippi that was the site of a seminal trial that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Martin was part of the Civil Rights Division of Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department and was one the lawyers prosecuting the case against Theron Lynd in Forrest County, Miss. in 1962, when Martin was a recent graduate of New York University School of Law.

“It’s all got to be chronicled,” Martin told the Gazette in a phone interview of his and others’ roles in that case. “I wanted the witnesses to be remembered by the public…I wanted to recognize these brave people from Forrest County.”

Writing the book, which took years, started innocently enough. Martin was taking a seminar at New York University on race and nationality in the late eighties. He was the only non-academic in the class and needed a “project” to discuss. For his homework, he decided he would interview the witnesses he had worked with and befriended during the US v. Theron Lynd case.

In those days, Martin would work in DC during the week and would go to Mississippi on the weekends, finding, interviewing and preparing 32 people who would comprise the witnesses in US’s voting rights case. Sixteen black and 16 white men and women told their stories—who they were, where they’d studied (or not), what they did, when they tried to register to vote and whether their application had been approved.

Lynd, the Registrar of Voters of Forrest County, Miss., was accused of infringing the civil rights of blacks in Forrest County by denying them the right to vote, in violation of the 14th Amendment. At the time, Forrest County had 12 blacks registered to vote, despite the fact blacks constituted 30 percent of the total population.

Eloise Hopson was one of five teachers who testified to whom Lynd did not grant the right to vote. Hopson was asked to copy and interpret a section of the constitution relating to appropriation of lands for and maintenance of levees on her application. She had a master’s degree from Columbia University when she applied.

“The idea that somebody thought that a certified teacher couldn’t interpret that was ridiculous,” Hopson is quoted as saying in the book.

The trial 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, which sought to safeguard the voting rights of disenfranchised minorities.

The states controlled voting and registration procedures until that time and “the Lynd case demonstrated to Congress, the people and the United States Supreme Court that a radical measure was necessary,” Martin said. Disenfranchising blacks “was the biggest social wrong in our country and I was privileged that I got to deal with it.”

“When you’re doing a job, you don’t think about historical nuances. I just knew how brave my witnesses were,” Martin said.

One of the witnesses in the case, Vernon Dahmer, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan four years after the trial.

“I was very upset [by the murder.] I wrote a piece for the Sunday Boston Herald. I loved him,” Martin said.

Back in Massachusetts, Martin was First Assistant United States Attorney, then Special Assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He also served as a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and became a partner in a law firm.

“My outlook was the same [as going into Mississippi]—very sensitive to social injustice, wherever it occurs. I think that’s the biggest legacy of the Lynd case for me, sensitivity to injustice,” Martin said.

In 1983, Martin was appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis to the Roxbury District Court, which, at the time, had the most drug, gun and domestic violence cases of any Massachusetts court. The 1988 murder of 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore particularly stuck with Martin. Moore was caught in gang crossfire while sitting on her front stoop.

“It was very upsetting. It really stays with you. There was a shift from motivated violence to random violence. That was depressing.” As a judge, “You just have to be fair to everyone that comes before you,” he added.

Because of this shift, Martin signed up for that fateful seminar at NYU in 1989. His work on the book was “on and off for a generation. I finished it after I retired,” Martin said.

Not that Martin now sits idle in his Cabot Estate home. He is still teaching a course, titled “Civil Rights and Community Courts: Problem Solving at the First Level of Justice,” at New England Law Boston. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, teaching Civil Rights and Legal Ethics in 2000.

Martin has spent most of his 75 years in and around Boston. He grew up in West Roxbury and lived in Newton for 40 years, where he and his wife Stephanie raised four children, one of whom is currently a practicing attorney. He is a graduate of Roxbury Latin School and Harvard College, where he was president of the Young Democrats.

After the Lynd trial, he returned to the South to investigate hunger in the Mississippi Delta and discrimination on southern air bases.

Martin said he became a lawyer because he had “a strong interest in politics, government and public service. Being a lawyer would be the best way to achieve that,” Martin said.

“Count Them One by One,” titled after a Civil Rights song, was released by the University Press of Mississippi in November. It is available at local bookstores as well as online retailers.