More than a quarter-century ago, a local newspaper declared he had forfeited the right to be buried in Confederate soil. But the rich Alabama loam covering a fresh grave in Greenwood Cemetery here awaits a granite slab that will identify the permanent resting place of Judge Richard Taylor Rives Sr. Born 88 years ago this month, he left a legacy that forever altered the face of the South.
A few feet from his grave is the marker for his son, Richard T. Rives Jr., which vandals once painted red and left strewn with garbage. Time magazine later characterized the incident as an example of how Judge Rives (rhymes with leaves) "was honored by his fellow Alabamians."
In the only letter to an editor he ever wrote, Rives replied that "whoever committed such an atrocity must have been mentally ill. Certainly it should not be charged to my fellow Alabamians, the overwhelming majority of whom are as fine, decent and fair-minded people as can be found anywhere."
Before his tragic death in a car wreck in 1949, his son's influence helped Rives transcend traditional Southern attitudes on race. World War II experience with black servicemen and an Ivy League education led the younger Rives to develop a strong desire to work for change in the South.
He explored those feelings with his father, who came to share them. A deeply religious and introspective man of Job-like patience, Rives was appointed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Truman not long after his son died.
For Rives, the storm broke in 1956 when he joined District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., 28 years his junior, and wrote the opinion that declared segregated seating on city buses in Montgomery unconstitutional. Their order came as the South entered its era of "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision. Historian C. Vann Woodward has written of that period: "All over the South the lights of reason and tolerance and moderation began to go out."
The order by the local judges not only ended the Montgomery bus boycott that launched the civil rights career of Martin Luther King Jr., but it significantly extended the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision to areas beyond education. The case set the trail-blazing direction that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would follow in civil rights.
On that court, Rives belonged to a band of unlikely heroes. An outraged fellow judge from Mississippi, who saw them as destroyers of the Old South he cherished, disparagingly labeled them "The Four." The others were Elbert Parr Tuttle of Atlanta, John Minor Wisdom of New Orleans and John R. Brown of Houston. All except Rives, the only Democrat, were Eisenhower Republicans.
None suffered from unpopular decisions more than Rives. After the bus-seating opinion, others who attended his church rose and moved away when he and his wife sat for worship services. When his lawyers' weekly luncheon club changed its meeting place, he received no notice. Speakers at the state bar association banquet referred to him, a former president of the group, as "our ex- friend."
He accepted ostracism with equanimity. When a loyal friend once asked how he felt about the treatment he received from people he had known all his life, Rives replied, "I feel sorry for them."
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals moved beyond its role as an institution for law and became an agent for change. The Four shared a quiet passion that reacted to injustice and translated the Supreme Court's basic school desegregation decision into a broad mandate for racial justice and equality under law.
Experience shaped them into judicial activists who learned that legal precedent may be inadequate when applying law to solve new problems. Their standards became guidelines that Congress incorporated into such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In a 1965 case that struck down the poll tax in Alabama, Judge Rives wrote: "If this court ignores the long history of racial discrimination in Alabama, it will prove that justice is both blind and deaf. We would be blind with indifference, not impartiality, and deaf with intentional disregard of the cries for equality of men before the law."
His greatest impact on law came in the field of jury discrimination. In a 1959 case that overturned the murder conviction of a black man in Mississippi, he linked voting discrimination with racial exclusion from juries. Rives noted the juries were drawn from voter lists and that the last two Negores registered to vote in the 57- percent-black Mississippi county had died seven years earlier.
Richard Rives contributed significantly to a South in which liberation and reconciliaton have emerged as the central themes of change in three decades of social, political and economic transformation. Despite free access by blacks to voting, schools, public accommodations, jury service, and job opportunities undreamed of a generation ago, thoughtful Southerners recognize that racism remains a serious problem for the region -- and for the nation. But the South confronts the problem daily, and even its pessimists believe the region offers the nation its best hope for finding a solution.
That is the legacy of Richard T. Rives and the band of unlikely heroes whose vision of justice he shared.