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Z 1877.000 S
COLEMAN (J. P.) PAPERS

ca. 1930s-1960s
Boxes 1-5 are restricted; boxes 6-39 are open.

Biography:

James Plemon Coleman, the eldest of the six children of Thomas Allen and Jennie Essie Worrell Coleman, was born on a farm near Fentress, Choctaw County, Mississippi, on January 9, 1914. Coleman graduated from high school in 1931 during the Depression. He attended the University of Mississippi until 1935 by working at various part-time jobs. Coleman never graduated from the University of Mississippi because he accepted an appointment as secretary to newly elected United States Representative Aaron Lane Ford of Mississippi in 1935. While working for the congressman by day, Coleman was also able to complete his legal education at George Washington University by night. Coleman received a bachelor of laws degree in 1939. He met Margaret Janet Dennis of Williamsport, Indiana, who was also working as a congressional secretary. They were married at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington on May 2, 1937.

Coleman returned to Mississippi in 1939 to practice law and to pursue a career in state politics. That same year he was elected district attorney of Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1940. Coleman was reelected district attorney in 1943. He also served as a presidential elector in 1944. Coleman was elected circuit judge of the Fifth District in 1946. His record as district attorney and circuit judge prompted his friend, Senator John C. Stennis, to nominate him as United States attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi in 1949. However, President Harry S. Truman denied Coleman the appointment in reprisal for the defection to the Dixiecrat Party of the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1948.

He was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court by Governor Fielding L. Wright in September 1950. However, he soon resigned from the court and was appointed attorney general of Mississippi by Governor Wright in October 1950. Coleman accepted the appointment with the intention of ending the continuing appeals and delays in the sentencing of Willie McGee, a black man who was three times convicted of the 1945 rape of a white woman from Laurel. Although the United States Supreme Court had affirmed the death sentence of McGee in 1950, there were still appeals for executive clemency. Coleman persisted after each delay in sentencing, and McGee was executed at the Mississippi Penitentiary on May 8, 1951. Coleman was elected without opposition to a four-year term as attorney general in 1951. A strong advocate for law and order, Coleman prosecuted the owners of illegal gambling and liquor establishments throughout the state. He also served as Democratic National Committeeman in 1952. Coleman also persuaded the credentials committee to seat the Mississippi delegation at the 1952 Democratic National Convention. He served as chairman of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1956.

Coleman was elected governor of Mississippi in 1955 in the wake of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision of the United States Supreme Court and its mandate for racial integration of public schools. When federal troops were dispatched to Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957 to enforce integration in the public schools, Coleman appealed to the white citizens of Mississippi not to react with fear and emotion to the threat of impending integration. Coleman insisted that all legal remedies at his disposal would be used to maintain segregation, and he urged the public not to provoke racial disturbances that would prompt President Eisenhower to send federal troops to Mississippi. However, Coleman’s approach to solving racial problems would increasingly place him at odds with many racist elements in the state.

This was especially true of the Citizens’ Council, an organization that he had chosen not to endorse publicly during his gubernatorial campaign. Throughout his administration, the Citizens’ Council would intensify its public criticism of Coleman for his views on race. Coleman opposed the council’s attempts to form a third political party in Mississippi. He also vetoed 1958 legislation allocating state funds for various Citizens’ Council initiatives.

One of the most controversial decisions of Coleman’s administration involved the site of the new veterans’ hospital in Jackson. Initially, the Mississippi legislature was interested in conveying a tract of land located on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Jackson for the construction of the new veterans’ hospital. However, when it became apparent that the proposed facility would be integrated, many legislators immediately withdrew their support and dared Coleman to sign the deed conveying the property. After announcing that he planned to sign the deed in May 1957, some legislators threatened to pass a law revoking his authority to do so. Coleman delayed signing until the legislature was in session. He stated that if the legislature was prepared to force Mississippi veterans to travel to an integrated facility in the North for medical care, he was prepared not to convey the property for the proposed veterans’ hospital. When the bill revoking Coleman’s authority to sign died in committee, the governor proceeded to sign the deed and Mississippi received the new veterans’ hospital. Coleman also vetoed a 1958 legislative bill that would have allowed the state attorney general’s office to examine the records of any corporation doing business in Mississippi. The bill was intended to thwart the activities and initiatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but it could have been used against any organization deemed subversive.

Although Coleman signed a piece of segregationist legislation that permitted the closing of public schools by executive order, he avoided using this law. However, it was his failure to invoke this law during the Clennon King admissions crisis at the University of Mississippi in the summer of 1958 that prompted some members of the Citizens Council to question his commitment to segregation. Judge Tom P. Brady was one of the most vocal Citizens Council leaders to denounce Coleman as a moderate. Toward the end of his administration Coleman was increasingly forced to defend his record on segregation. This was particularly true after the forced integration of the Little Rock public schools and Coleman’s endorsement of Representative Brooks Hays of Arkansas, who was perceived as a moderate by the Citizens Council. The criticism of the Citizens Council reached its apex in 1959 when Coleman requested the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation following the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville. Coleman was severely criticized for calling in the FBI, but he was anxious to demonstrate to the rest of the nation that Mississippi would not permit the lawlessness of mob rule to go unpunished. He appeared on statewide television on June 29, 1959, to defend his record on segregation and refute critics’ claims that he was a moderate. Toward the end of his administration, Coleman was also elected chairman of the Southern Governors’ Conference in 1959.

A loyal Choctaw County constituency elected Coleman to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1959. He served in the legislature from 1960 to 1964, during the racially turbulent administration of Governor Ross Barnett. His views on segregation were out of step with the racist climate that was prevalent in the legislature during the Barnett administration. Although Coleman was largely unable to exert a moderating influence on the legislative initiatives of many of his contemporaries, he remained an outspoken supporter of the national Democratic Party. In 1960, Coleman and other loyalist Democrats, including Senators James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, urged the Mississippi electorate to vote with the party in order to protect important committee assignments in Congress. Coleman campaigned vigorously throughout the state in support of the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson presidential ticket in 1960, but he was unable to win over the majority of the electorate.

Coleman was serving in the Mississippi legislature when black student James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Privately, he advised Governor Barnett to comply with the federal court order and admit Meredith without any further interference. As a precaution against possible outbreaks of violence, Coleman also recommended that Barnett send law-enforcement officers to Oxford with orders to block all major highways leading into the city. Barnett largely ignored Coleman’s advice. As Coleman had anticipated, and despite the efforts of state officials to prevent it, Meredith was later admitted to the university.

When Coleman sought reelection as governor in 1963, he was opposed by Paul B. Johnson, Jr., Clarksdale attorney Charles L. Sullivan, and Robert F. Mason. Coleman’s opponents quickly denounced him as a moderate, citing what they considered to be his poor record on segregation, his ties to liberals such as President Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, his support of the national Democratic Party and its liberal platform, and the advice that he had offered to Governor Barnett regarding the Meredith admissions crisis at the University of Mississippi. Coleman struggled to refute the accusations and allegations that were leveled against him by Johnson and his supporters, but he was defeated by a substantial margin when he faced Johnson in the second primary.

Ironically, the political liabilities that effectively ended Coleman’s career in Mississippi politics later proved to be assets when Coleman sought Senate confirmation of his judicial nomination to the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, in 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Coleman to replace the late Judge Ben F. Cameron, a Mississippian who had formerly served on the Fifth Circuit. The President was faced with the challenge of finding a compromise candidate who would be acceptable to both liberal and conservative United States senators and moderate enough on the issue of race to be acceptable to civil rights leaders and organizations. It was customary that nominees be appointed from the state of the previous judge, and it was also customary for the two United States senators from the nominee’s state to recommend him. Coleman was recommended to President Johnson by Senators Eastland and Stennis in April of 1965.

Coleman, however, still faced strong opposition from various civil rights organizations, including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and milder opposition from the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among the members of Congress opposing Coleman was black Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan, who referred to him as “the thinking man’s segregationist.” While many of his adversaries acknowledged that Coleman was a highly qualified nominee with a brilliant legal mind, they feared that the former governor of a segregationist state would use his legal expertise to hinder the Supreme Court’s mandate for integration.

Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina presided over the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee when Coleman appeared before it on July 12 and 13, 1965, to defend his record on civil rights. In anticipation of the adverse testimony of various civil rights leaders and liberals opposing the nomination, President Johnson sent Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to testify in Coleman’s behalf. The attorney general refuted or qualified most of the allegations of those individuals and organizations opposing Coleman’s nomination.

After enduring nearly two days of adverse testimony before the subcommittee, Coleman was finally given the opportunity to speak for himself. Coleman responded to a series of questions that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted answered regarding his record as governor of Mississippi, his pro-segregationist position during his unsuccessful 1963 gubernatorial race, and whether he, as an appellate judge, would follow Supreme Court rulings in civil rights cases. The subcommittee unanimously approved Coleman’s nomination. The fifteen-member Senate Judiciary Committee also approved Coleman’s nomination, but not unanimously. When his nomination passed to the floor of the full Senate, it was approved by a sizable margin.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark administered the oath of office to James P. Coleman as judge of the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, on August 16, 1965. Coleman took the oath in the Washington office of Senator John C. Stennis. In 1979, he became the first Mississippian to serve as chief judge of the Fifth Circuit. Coleman assumed senior judge status in 1981 and continued working on earlier court cases until his retirement on January 31, 1984. He served nineteen years on the Fifth Circuit.

Civil rights activists were often critical of Coleman’s record on the Fifth Circuit. However, he probably drew the most criticism in the handling of a reapportionment case involving Mississippi legislative districts. Coleman was accused of deliberately delaying the settlement of the case, but he insisted that the delay was due to the lack of current census data that he considered crucial in ruling on the case. The reapportionment case was eventually settled by the United States District Court of the District of Columbia. It resulted in the creation of new legislative districts for the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives and the election of seventeen black legislators in 1979.

After retiring from the federal bench, Coleman returned to Ackerman, Mississippi, where he entered into a law partnership with his son, Thomas Allen Coleman. He also owned and operated a farm in Choctaw County. Coleman served on the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History from 1966 to 1975 and from 1987 to 1991 and was president of the Mississippi Historical Society in 1971. He was also the author of various historical and genealogical publications, including Choctaw County Chronicles: A History of Choctaw County, Mississippi, 1830-1973, and The Robert Coleman Family: From Virginia to Texas, 1652-1965. Coleman died in the Choctaw County Nursing Home in Ackerman on September 28, 1991, of complications from a stroke he suffered on December 14, 1990.

Scope and Content:

This collection contains the incoming and outgoing correspondence and other papers and records documenting J. P. Coleman’s tenure as district attorney of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi (elected 1939); circuit judge of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi (elected 1946); Mississippi Supreme Court justice in September 1950; attorney general of Mississippi from October 1950 to January 1956; and governor of Mississippi from January 1956 to January 1960.

The experiences of Coleman as district attorney of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi are revealed in the files of the Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster, and Winston County Circuit Court cases he prosecuted. His correspondence as circuit judge of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi includes letters from United States Senator John C. Stennis and United States Congressmen Thomas G. Abernethy, Jamie L. Whitten, and Arthur Winstead. Also included are letters concerning Coleman’s possible candidacy for Mississippi governor; Mississippi Democratic Party politics; the Dixiecrat movement and states’ rights issues; and Coleman’s appointment to the Mississippi Supreme Court by Governor Fielding L. Wright. Among the scattered records of Coleman’s brief tenure as a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice in 1950 is a letter from Frank Ellis Smith, a candidate for the Third Congressional District of Mississippi.

Coleman’s correspondence as attorney general of Mississippi includes letters from United States Senators Lyndon B. Johnson and John C. Stennis, United States Congressmen Thomas G. Abernethy and Frank Ellis Smith, and Mississippi Governors Fielding L. Wright and Hugh White. Other files concern various state and local law-enforcement matters, including the prosecution of the owners of various establishments involved in the illegal sale of liquor or gambling. There are also files pertaining to the Mississippi Supreme Court appeal of the death sentence imposed on Willie McGee by the Jones County Circuit Court for a 1945 rape conviction.

The gubernatorial correspondence of Coleman documents his interactions with state legislators and state agencies, boards, and commissions; involvement in state and national Democratic Party politics; friendships with various Mississippi politicians; responsiveness to constituents; advocacy for a new state constitution; participation in national and regional professional organizations of governors; support of law enforcement; interest in state and federal public works projects; and support of historic preservation. Coleman’s role as a racially moderate governor of a segregationist state during the early years of the civil rights movement is also documented.

Series Identification:

Subgroup 1: District Attorney (Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi). Records.

Series 1: Correspondence. 1936-1947. 1.83 cubic ft. Restricted.

This series contains incoming and outgoing correspondence and other papers and records documenting J. P. Coleman’s tenure as district attorney of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, which included Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster, and Winston counties. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 1: A-G
  • Box 2: H-We
  • Box 3: Wi

Subgroup 2: Circuit Judge (Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi). Records.

Series 2: Correspondence. 1946-1950. 1.66 cubic ft. Restricted.

This series contains incoming and outgoing correspondence and other papers and records documenting J. P. Coleman’s tenure as circuit judge of the Fifth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, which included Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster, and Winston counties. Included are a number of letters from United States Senators such as John C. Stennis and United States Congressmen such as Thomas G. Abernethy, Jamie L. Whitten, and Arthur Winstead. Also included are letters concerning Coleman’s possible candidacy for Mississippi governor; Mississippi Democratic Party politics; the Dixiecrat movement and states’ rights issues; and Coleman’s appointment to the Mississippi Supreme Court by Governor Fielding L. Wright. Of additional interest are photographs of Coleman and Governor Wright at the Neshoba County Fair on August 18, 1949. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 4: A-L
  • Box 5: Mc-Y

Subgroup 3: Mississippi Supreme Court Justice. Records.

Series 3: Correspondence. 1950. 0.33 cubic ft. Restricted.

This series contains scattered incoming and outgoing correspondence of J. P. Coleman during his brief tenure as Mississippi Supreme Court Justice in 1950. Included is a letter from Frank Ellis Smith, a candidate for the Third Congressional District of Mississippi. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 5: C-S

Subgroup 4: Mississippi Attorney General. Records.

Series 4: Correspondence. 1945-1956. 5.00 cubic ft.

This series contains the incoming and outgoing correspondence of J. P. Coleman during his tenure as attorney general of Mississippi. Included are letters from United States Senators Lyndon B. Johnson and John C. Stennis, United States Congressmen Thomas G. Abernethy and Frank Ellis Smith, and Mississippi Governors Fielding L. Wright and Hugh White. The files mainly pertain to various state and local law-enforcement matters, including the prosecution of the owners of various establishments involved in the illegal sale of liquor or gambling. Of particular interest is a group of files concerning the Sage Patch Cafe, a Jackson County, Mississippi, gambling den, and black-and-white photographs of the confiscation and destruction of slot machines, roulette tables, etc., at the Sage Patch Cafe following a state militia raid ordered by Governor Hugh White upon the request of Attorney General Coleman in 1952. Coleman and other officials appear in the photographs. There are also files pertaining to Willie McGee’s Mississippi Supreme Court appeal of the death sentence imposed on him by the Jones County Circuit Court for a 1945 rape conviction. The Mississippi Supreme Court case, Willie McGee v. State of Mississippi, No. 36,892, was subsequently appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court. McGee was represented in his federal appeals by New York attorney Bella S. Abzug. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 6: A-G (1945-1956)
  • Box 7: H-Law Enforcement, Ha (1950-1956)
  • Box 8: Law Enforcement, Hi-McGee, Willie (1947-1955)
  • Box 9: McGee, Willie-S (1947-1955)
  • Box 10: T-Z (1950-1955)

Subgroup 5: Mississippi Governor. Records.

Series 5: Correspondence (Special). ca. 1956-1960. 13.00 cubic ft.

This series contains the incoming and outgoing correspondence of J. P. Coleman during his tenure as governor of Mississippi from 1956 to 1960. It documents Coleman’s 1956 inaugural activities; his interaction with state agencies, boards, and commissions; his involvement in Democratic Party politics at the state and national levels; his association with various Mississippi politicians; his advocacy for a new state constitution; his participation in national and regional professional organizations of governors; his involvement in educational organizations such as the Educational Finance Commission and the Southern Regional Education Board; his strong interest in law enforcement, especially the prosecution of those engaged in illegal liquor and gambling; his opposition to a proposed bill repealing the 1954 law authorizing the state to convey thirty acres of land for a new veterans hospital adjacent to the University Medical Center; his responses to natural disasters such as a 1958 tornado that caused extensive damage at the Piney Woods Country Life School; his interest in public works projects such as the Natchez Trace Parkway and the proposed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway; his guest appearances on the Dave Garroway, Meet the Press, and Today television programs in 1957; the naming of the J. P. Coleman State Park, Tishomingo County, Mississippi, in his honor; and the commissioning of Coleman’s portrait for the Hall of Governors in the New Capitol.

Coleman’s correspondence also reflects his interest in the restoration of the Old Capitol under the direction of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the preservation of the historic Civil War battlefield, Brice’s Crossroads, near Guntown, Mississippi. His correspondence also documents the Department’s acquisition of important museum collections, including the battleship USS Mississippi sterling-silver service and the personal library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Fred A. Rosenstock of Denver, Colorado.

The policy of segregation in Mississippi and the organizations designed to perpetuate it, such as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens Council, are well-documented in the collection. Of particular importance are informational copies of the correspondence, memoranda, reports, etc., concerning the activities of individuals and organizations under surveillance by the commission, including an extensive file documenting Clyde Kennard’s attempts to enroll at Mississippi Southern College, Hattiesburg, in 1958, and the commission’s attempts to thwart his enrollment. There are also files pertaining to the constitutional implications of various states’ rights issues, including the use of interposition and nullification to circumvent federally mandated integration. Also of interest are the letters of G. N. McIlhenny of Lake, Mississippi, suggesting that the existence of various genetic disorders, such as sickle-cell anemia in black populations, would provide a public health basis for continuing segregation.

Coleman’s administration coincides with the early years of the civil rights movement, and there is considerable documentation pertaining to it. Included are files on civil rights activists such as Aaron Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr.; files on civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and civil rights files that are more general in nature. There are also files documenting the wounding of former NAACP leader Gus Courts in Belzoni in 1955 and the racially motivated killings of blacks in Mississippi that received national attention, such as the lynching of Emmett Till near Money in 1955 and Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville in 1959. Included are the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report and accompanying photographs of the recovery of Parker’s body from the Pearl River. There are also files pertaining to the reapportionment of legislative districts and other voting-rights issues, including the black voter-registration discrimination case, H. D. Darby, et al. v. James Daniel, et al., Civil Action No. 2748, United States District Court, Southern District, Jackson Division, 1958. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 11: A-Chi (1956-1960; n.d.)
  • Box 12: Cho-Cr (1952-1959)
  • Box 13: D-Em (1955-1959)
  • Box 14: En-G (1956-1960)
  • Box 15: H-Law Enforcement, A (1951-1959)
  • Box 16: Law Enforcement, B-Law Enforcement, R (1952-1959)
  • Box 17: Law Enforcement, S-Me (1955-1960)
  • Box 18: Me-Ne (1955-1959)
  • Box 19: No-Pe (1955-1959)
  • Box 20: Ph-Pu (1952-1960)
  • Box 21: R-Sp (1955-1959)
  • Box 22: Sp-Ten (1955-1959)
  • Box 23: Tex-Y (1955-1959)

Series 6: Correspondence (Miscellaneous). ca. 1956-1960. 16.00 cubic ft.

This series contains incoming and outgoing correspondence from constituents, as well as from individuals out of state, during J. P. Coleman’s tenure as governor of Mississippi from 1956 to 1960. There are letters from Mississippi senators and congressmen, legislators, judges, and state and local officials, Democratic Party leaders, businessmen, industrialists, doctors, lawyers, and private citizens requesting the governor’s assistance in a variety of matters. Also included are letters from public officials from other states. File arrangement is alphabetical and thereunder chronological.

  • Box 24: A (1956-1960); B (1955-1957)
  • Box 25: B (1957-1960); C (1956)
  • Box 26: C (1957-1959)
  • Box 27: C (1959-1960); D (1956-1960); E (1956-1960)
  • Box 28: F (1956-1960); G (1955-1960)
  • Box 29: G (1958-1960); H (1956-1958)
  • Box 30: H (1958-1959); I (1956-1959); J (1956-1959)
  • Box 31: J (1958-1960); K (1956-1960); L (1955-1958)
  • Box 32: L (1957-1960); Mc (1956-1960); M (1956)
  • Box 33: M (1957-1960); N (1956-1957)
  • Box 34: N (1957-1959); O (1956-1960); P (1956-1960)
  • Box 35: P (1958-1960); Q (1957-1959); R (1956-1960)
  • Box 36: S (1955-1960)
  • Box 37: S (1958-1960); T (1956-1960)
  • Box 38: T (1959); U (1957-1960); V (1956-1959); W (1956-1960)
  • Box 39:W (1958-1959); Y (1956-1960); Z (1957-1959; n.d.)

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