Martha Mills: Lawyer, Activist, Judge

by Bill Benzon

Martha Mills came to Mississippi as a young civil rights lawyer, looked racists judges, lawyers, and Ku Kluxers in the eye, and never backed down–in court or out. Small in stature, huge in guts, as far as I was concerned she was the smartest, bravest, and just plain toughest of that corporal’s guard of dedicated lawyers committed to giving life to the law.

—W. Hodding Carter III

LawyerActivistJudgeThe 1960s were tumultuous years in American politics. The nation blundered into a disastrous war in Vietnam that sparked years of protest and deprived Lyndon Johnson of a second full term as president. His boss, John F. Kennedy, and been assassinated in November of 1963, leaving Johnson to pursue that terrible war, but also to work with Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They brought the civil rights movement to fruition with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when Robert was a U.S. Senator. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968, only two months after Martin Luther King was assassinated. King’s assassination fulminated race riots across the nation.

On February 7, 1969, The New York Times ran a story on page 20:

Woman Lawyer, 27, Jailed on Contempt In Grenada, Miss.

Special to the New York Times

GRENADA, Miss., Feb. 6–A 27-year-old woman lawyer was jailed for three hours here today after being held in contempt of court by Circuit Judge Marshall Perry when she attempted to file a bill of exceptions to a case involving a Negro civil rights worker.

Miss Martha M. Wood, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Jackson, was released under $300 bail.

An offense that merits release after only three hours in jail and with bail at $300 can’t have been much of an offense. And it wasn’t. But it involves a kind of
intricate legal obfuscation that defies easy summary and that is characteristic of race relations in the United States, then and alas now. If the prospect of summarizing it brings me to the edge of extreme annoyance you can imagine what it did to those who suffered through and by it, day after day.

Such is the texture of the story that Martha Mills recounts in a memoir of her years as a civil rights attorney, Lawyer, Activist, Judge: Fighting for Civil and Voting Rights in Mississippi and Illinois (2015). In this particular case the obfuscation was also the occasion of a little theatrical detail in the manner of arrest: “The deputy grabbed my arm roughly and hauled me out of the courtroom. As soon as we were out of the courtroom, however, he dropped my arm, apologized, and said he had to do that for the judge” (p. 277). You gotta’ love it, the delicate egos of those racist judges. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.


After an undergraduate education at Macalester College and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, Martha A. Mills became the first woman lawyer at White & Case, a prestigious Wall Street firm. As members of that firm had been involved in the 1963 formation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mills was aware of the committee’s volunteer program (p. 21):

In hindsight, there were few women trial lawyers anywhere in the United States in those days, and trial lawyers were what the Lawyers’ Committee in Mississippi desperately needed. White & Case was definitely very white, very male, and much imbued with status quo ideas about what women lawyers should or could do.

But they approved and Mills arrived in Jackson, state capital of Mississippi, on March 1, 1967. That same evening she accompanied another staff attorney, Barbara Shapiro, to attend a mass meeting in Natchez following the death of Wharlest Jackson, who had been murdered because he had taken a $7-an-hour job formerly held by a white man.

This meeting was held in a church, as many such meetings were, for the church has traditionally been the center of African-American community. As Barack Obama said in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah, rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.

And now Mills was one of those foot soldiers and was hunkered down in her first meeting deep behind enemy lines (pp. 100-101).

The mass meeting went from one hour to two and then three. It was interrupted several times by phone calls of reported threats on the lives of NAACP people in the community. After each phone call, the threat would be announced, in part so that everyone knew the danger that skulked outside, and in part to poke fun at attempted threats. After each announcement both murmurs and soft laughter ran through the crowd, so that I could see that people took the warnings seriously but that it was recognized as “white business as usual.” Given the history of the Klan and many whites in the area, the dual reaction was the only sensible response. […]

The atmosphere, in spite of the context, was positive. People sang hymns between speeches that called on everyone to stand strong and fight for the equality they deserved. The message was that together they could overcome all the years of degradation and abuse. It was not a somber event. Dogs barked outside, people responded from all parts of the crowd, “Yes,” That’s it,” “You’re right, brother,” “You tell ‘em!” Everyone, especially me, seemed so caught up in everything that the heat, the overcrowding, and the long hours were not even noticed.

After the meeting Mills was introduced to Charles Evers, brother to Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who had been assassinated in 1963.

They soon became fast friends and allies. Mills bought a home catty-corner from Evers’ and met and played with his children, Nicie especially, his youngest: “We talked, told stories, played music, baked cookies, and made a papier-mâché hippopotamus and painted it purple.” In 1969 Evers decided to run for mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, a small city of less than 2000. He registered 450 additional voters and won, 433 to 264, over “Turnip Green” Allen, who was asked to but refused to swear Evers in as mayor. Evers hired Mills as city attorney. She resigned her position with the Lawyers’ Committee to take the job and set about training city officials and straightening out the budget, which had been deliberately left in a mess. Then they got word of a plot to assassinate Evers, something about an ex Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Green Forest and a former Exalted Cyclops of the United Klans of America (294-297).

And so it goes.

There is the law, in all its majesty and eloquence, albeit often embroidered with intricate traceries of technical detail, and there is the practical business of making it work. People make it work, or not. And so Martha’s book–full disclosure, she’s a friend, so I’m entitled to the informality–is full of people and stories about them, little stories, big stories, but stories.

Did you see Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe? It was based on the 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Well Martha had extensive dealings with William Harold Cox, the real-life judge in that case. It seems that pretty near anyone involved in civil rights in Mississippi had dealings with Judge Cox, who once rendered a decision in which he said: “Who is telling these people [black applicants for registration] they can get in line and push people around, acting like a bunch of chimpanzees?” (222). Guess what? Martha was able to manage things so that Judge Cox was the one who had to admit her to the federal bar of Mississippi (197):

I suppose I wanted him to suffer through having to swear me in. My attitude was a bit petulant, but I figured that I was entitled to something for the anguish Judge Cox and his court regularly put as all through.

Like I said, people. How’s the song go? “People who need people/ Are the luckiest people in the world.” Hmmm…

One more story:

Lynn and Larry Ross hosted the Seder and invited me, others from the office, and some black friends. The text we used was the “radical Seder” [that had been published in Ramparts magazine in 1969], which used both the traditional and familiar questions and answers as well as the expanded recognition of the universality of the desire for freedom. It acknowledged leaders other than Moses, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We had the traditional accouterments, including the empty wine cup and empty seat at the dinner table for Elijah. The Seder hope was that a stranger would appear, and perhaps the stranger would be Elijah to lead us all to freedom and better things.

My friends having the Seder lived in the same neighborhood I did, with winding streets in which it was easy to get lost, or at least not find what you are looking for. An about-to-be-very-surprised black couple stopped at the house to ask directions. They were not only confronted with a mixed race dinner gathering in a black neighborhood, but also being hailed as Elijah and welcomed in to participate in the dinner! And they did stay awhile and have a glass of wine. We were all delighted.


Preclearance and the Return of Obfuscatory Nonsense

Mills devotes a substantial part of the book, five chapters (pp. 25-92) to explaining the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, what they are and how they came about. In particular she details the many ways Mississippi had devised to keep Africa-Americans from voting, tactics that were given a new life in June of 2013 when in a Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder (Wikipedia), the Roberts court decided that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. That, in turn, rendered Section 5 toothless. Section 5 “requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practice.” Section 4(b) “contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.”

What’s this about? It’s about poll taxes, reading tests, oaths, where you live, when you moved, the distinction between municipal and state elections, the publication of lists of voter applicants, and who knows what else. It’s all intricate obfuscatory nonsense designed to provide legal cover for denying black people the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 said If you want to change the requirements for voting you have to get our (the federal government) permission to do so. That’s preclearance and the objective is to eliminate one particular variety (among many) of obfuscatory nonsense. The Roberts court decided the times they have been changed and, in effect, nullified that requirement.

The result? The return of obfuscatory nonsense. For example: Michael Wines, writing in The New York Times, “Critics See Efforts by Counties and Towns to Purge Minority Voters From Rolls” (July 31, 2016):

Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance mandate unconstitutional, saying the blatant discrimination it was meant to prevent was largely a thing of the past.

But since the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in the voting-rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, critics argue, the blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting have been supplanted by a blizzard of more subtle changes. Most conspicuous have been state efforts like voter ID laws or cutbacks in early voting periods, which critics say disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Less apparent, but often just as contentious, have been numerous voting changes enacted in counties and towns across the South and elsewhere around the country.

They appear as Republican legislatures and election officials in the South and elsewhere have imposed statewide restrictions on voting that could depress turnout by minorities and other Democrat-leaning groups in a crucial presidential election year. Georgia and North Carolina, two states whose campaigns against so-called voter fraud have been cast by critics as aimed at black voters, could both be contested states in autumn’s presidential election.

And so it goes. Freud called it the return of the repressed. I call it nonsense. I call it evil.

A Million Dollar Win

And that’s what Martha Mills was up against. But she, and many others, did win some victories.

In 1966 Ben Chester White was murdered near Natchez. Criminal charges were brought against Claude Fuller, Ernest Avants, and James Lloyd Jones, to no avail. In 1968 Mills and her colleagues sued them, and five top officers of the KKK (199-217). The case was tried before Judge William Harold “Mississippi Burning” Cox and Mills and her colleagues won. The story involves a good measure of backwoods insanity, grandiose titles, beer and strawberry soda, male bonding through violence, torching a car, “religious conniptions”, and obfuscatory nonsense, of course. Would you believe, for example, that a disbarred Klansman was allowed to represent the defendants?

When the jury returned, they were asked if they had reached a verdict, and the foreman said yes. The verdict was passed to the clerk of the court to read. He read the first part finding the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Jones, Fuller, and Avants liable for $21,500 in actual damages and then stopped. He paused and glanced at the judge. He continued. He read that the jury awarded $1 million as punitive damages. We were both ecstatic and a bit surprised. Later, when we thought about it, we felt the clerk looked at Judge Cox before reading that part of the verdict out of an excess of caution because the clerk too was surprised. (214)

Of course it is one thing to win a million dollar judgment and quite something else to collect on it. As Mills notes, their Klan bed sheets weren’t worth spit (my wording, not hers). Still, it was “the first major verdict since Reconstruction for a black person killed or harmed by whites” (215).

What a life.

In the span of four years, 1967-1971, at one and the same time both short and long, short in chronological time, long in the pace of events and the centuries of history encapsulated, Martha Mills made a difference. Not by herself, certainly, not by herself, for she worked closely with others, black and white, well educated and not, but strong in spirit, all dedicated to justice and to freedom. The struggle continues and will always continue. There are no final victories. Only accomplishments, hope, and promise.

If you are a student, read this book. If you are a citizen, read this book. If you care about truth and justice, freedom and dignity, read this book.

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The book is also available for pre-order at for release, I kid you not, on April the first, 2017. The earlier link is to the American Bar Association, which publishes the book, and will sell it to you now for $60 simoleons, $48 if you're a “Sponsor Member”. There is some hope that the price will become more reasonable at some time in the future.