An Accident of History
ATLANTA – When Anne Emanuel won a prized judicial clerkship in 1974, she knew the judge she was going to work for as an icon of the civil rights movement. Several years earlier, as chief judge for the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over most of the Deep South, Elbert Parr Tuttle had shouldered the responsibility of ensuring that the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings were enforced.
However, it was Tuttle’s character and his extraordinary life story that drove Emanuel to write the first and only authorized biography of the judge, the newly released Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution (The University of Georgia Press).
“An unusual and unpredictable set of circumstances led to a man who had been born in California and raised in Hawaii becoming the Chief Judge for the historic Fifth Circuit,” explains Emanuel, a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law. “In 1954, just before his appointment to the court, Brown v. Board of Education was decided. And in 1960 he became the Chief Judge.”
As Emanuel writes in the book, Tuttle’s ascendancy to Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was a “remarkable and fortuitous accident of history.”
At that time, it was very strong custom that the judges on the United States Circuits of Courts of Appeals were men of the region over which they presided. Not only was Tuttle not from the South, he had been raised in probably the only multiracial culture in the United States at that time, Hawaii.
Born in California in 1897, Tuttle moved with his family in 1906 to Hawaii, where he attended Punahou, the same school President Barack Obama later attended. His classmates included native Hawaiians and students of Chinese, Japanese, Philippine and Portuguese ancestry (there were no students of African ancestry at the school and very few in the islands at all at that time).
Tuttle went on to attend Cornell University in New York. In the summer after his junior year, unable to afford the trip back to Hawaii, he accepted an invitation from a classmate from Jacksonville, Florida, Strawn Perry, and went home with him. It would prove to be a fateful turn of events.
“On the very first day he met Strawn’s date at a casual party,” Emanuel explains. “Fortunately that wasn’t a serious date because Tuttle fell in love with Sara Sutherland at first sight.”
Shortly after graduating from Cornell, Tuttle enlisted in the United States Army. He was called to active duty on his 21st birthday, July 17, 1918, and released after the armistice that ended World War I was signed on November 18, 1918. Tuttle worked as a reporter with the New York Evening World and then with the Army and Navy Journal in Washington, D.C., before returning to Cornell to attend law school.
By then, Elbert Tuttle and Sara Sutherland had married, and Tuttle had also become good friends with Sara’s brother William A. (Bill) Sutherland. After Bill graduated from Harvard Law and finished a clerkship with Justice Louis Brandeis, and Tuttle graduated from Cornell Law, the two men decided to open a firm together in Atlanta (Sutherland & Tuttle, now The Sutherland Firm). Coming to Atlanta was, Emanuel explains, a calculated move.
“It was partly that Bill’s family was from Georgia, and partly because they researched which cities had the fewest lawyers and the most large corporations. And the two cities highest on the list were Atlanta and Dallas,” Emanuel says. “The tie-breaker at that point, according to them, was not family ties, but that air conditioning had not yet been invented. Dallas was less attractive than Atlanta in a world without air-conditioning. So they decided to start their practice in Atlanta.”
As the firm grew, it became nationally renowned for expertise in tax matters. For his part, Tuttle handled the litigation and the general practice areas. He also made time for substantial pro bono work, including work on two cases that resulted in landmark opinions in the United States Supreme Court – Herndon v. Lowry (1937) and Johnson v. Zerbst (1938).
As a member of the Georgia National Guard, Tuttle was called to active duty in September 1940. After the United States entered World War II he volunteered for overseas duty, and from 1944-1945 he commanded the 304th Field Artillery Battalion of the Seventy-Seventh Division as they fought on the ground in the Guam Campaign and the Battle of Okinawa. Tuttle was wounded in hand-to-hand combat on the island of Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. He was awarded numerous medals for his service including the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Bronze Service Arrowhead.
Tuttle had long harbored political ambition, but when he moved to Georgia he refused to join the white Democratic Party, which was segregated by law as well as custom. Instead he devoted himself to building a viable Republican Party. After the election of 1952, Tuttle joined the Eisenhower administration as General Counsel to the Treasury; then, in 1954, President Eisenhower appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and Tuttle returned to Atlanta.
Just over five years later and only weeks after he became chief judge, Tuttle “turned the tide of history,” as Emanuel writes, when two African-American students — Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault — sought entry to the all-white University of Georgia. When a lower court judge delayed his order to let them in, Tuttle ordered a hearing for the same afternoon and voided the delay, ordering the state to admit the black students immediately.
It was just the beginning of many rulings by Judge Tuttle that would forever change a way of life in the South. As chief judge of the Fifth Circuit from 1960-67, Tuttle, Emanuel writes, “led the way in disarming the southern states of the most effective weapon in their arsenal — delay.”
Tuttle was one of the first judges to be called a “judicial activist” and was reviled by those who wished to see the South remain segregated. In later years, when he was honored for his work, he often noted that the civil rights cases were “the easiest cases I ever decided. The constitutional rights were so compelling, and the wrongs were so enormous.”
After stepping down as chief judge in 1967, Tuttle assumed senior status; when the Fifth Circuit was divided, in 1981, into the Fifth and the Eleventh Circuits, he continued to serve as a senior judge on the Eleventh Circuit, closing his office in 1993. In 1989, the Eleventh Circuit Courthouse in Atlanta was named in his honor. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter in 1981, and his footprints are included in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta.
Although Tuttle had assumed senior status by the time Emanuel clerked for him in 1975-76, he still carried a heavy caseload, and he often sat by designation on other Circuits. When he was not out of town, he usually had a brown bag lunch with his clerks in his chambers. Emanuel, who has worked in downtown Atlanta since 1975, was often able to join those lunch groups. Though he had long resisted potential biographers, in 1993 he gave Emanuel the authorization to proceed.
In her work on the biography, Emanuel conducted extensive interviews with, among others, the judge, members of his family, judges he served with, attorneys who appeared before him, colleagues at the Sutherland Firm, and men who served under him in World War II. On one point, there was virtual unanimity, Emanuel says. “There was something about him, something about the way he carried himself, that conveyed his strength of character. He had great personal integrity, and somehow you could sense it.”
Emanuel also conducted extensive documentary research in archives at numerous libraries, museums, and universities, and utilized the work of other historians, and the contemporaneous reporting of journalists.
Emanuel, who twice battled breast cancer during the writing of the book, is glad to finally see Tuttle’s story in print. It is, she says, an important story. “My goal was not to write a jurisprudential tome,” she says, “but a true biography. I view Tuttle’s life and work as an emblematic American story, one that is important to preserve and convey.”