A few years ago, a lawyer representing a black plaintiff in a discrimination case asked U.S. District Judge William Alsup to recuse himself. Alsup’s roots growing up white in Jim Crow Mississippi, the attorney reasoned, made him incapable of giving his client a fair shake. After some reflection, Alsup denied the lawyer’s motion. In a brief ruling, Alsup wrote that his youth in Mississippi opened, rather than closed his eyes to the cruelty of racism.
In “Won Over: Reflections of a Federal Judge on His Journey from Jim Crow Mississippi,” a newly published memoir from NewSouth Books, Alsup expands on just how his eyes were opened and how his views evolved during the course of the civil rights movement. Alsup recently sat down with Ross Todd, San Francisco bureau chief of The Recorder and Law.com, to discuss the book and his reasons for writing it. The following is an abridged transcript of the conversation, which will air on an upcoming episode of the Legal Speak podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you write this book and why did you focus so much of it on your youth in Mississippi?
The title is “Won Over” as in “won over to the right side of history.” I realized people have asked me over the years how I grew up in Mississippi in the most segregated place in America with halfway decent ideas on the race issue. A few years back, I started realizing there aren’t that many of us left who can remember that era. Fifteen years from now there probably won’t be any. I am one of the only people in all of San Francisco today who actually sat in a church and saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exhort the people who were going to be in a march.
And so, I am a witness to history. I am a very minor participant in that history, but I was definitely a witness to it and the witnesses are going to be gone soon. So while I still have my mental faculties in good shape I thought I would write this story. It’s about 1945 to 1967. It’s not my entire life. It’s just about that arc of my views and how they changed and what influenced them.
You do include some moments from you modern life, including a recent case from 2011 where there was a motion to recuse brought on behalf of an African-American plaintiff in a discrimination case. They were asking you to recuse based on the fact that you grew up in Mississippi, arguing that you couldn’t help but have discriminatory views. You wrote in the decision denying that motion to recuse that growing up in Mississippi opened, not closed, your eyes to the cruelty of racism. How so?
Most recently in the case I had ruled against the African American plaintiff and the lawyer was upset with that and he made a motion for me to recuse myself and the theory was that I was ingrained with residual racism. Now that hurt my feelings greatly, but I took it seriously and I thought about it because I think there is a problem of residual racism and unintended bias and implicit bias in our system. The conclusion that I came to after thinking about my life down there was exactly what you said: The experience had opened and not closed my eyes to the cruelty of racism. What the book does is to trace that history of racism and the reasons why I think it did open rather than close my eyes.
My mom and dad were from Texas and they accepted, if not believed in, race segregation as virtually every white person in Mississippi did at that time. So, I grew up in that environment.
You make the distinction in the book between your parents, who you describe as segregationist, and white supremacists. How do you draw that distinction and why was it an important one for you to make?
I want to start by saying that history has condemned both groups—and rightly so—and I’m not here to in any way defend either group. At the time, if you lived through that era, you would have noted the difference. The basic difference was that people like my mom and dad believed in separate but equal. That was what the Supreme Court had once said was correct and what they believed. The white supremacists didn’t even believe in the equal part. The white supremacists were the Klan types who were willing to kill and didn’t believe in equality. But my mom and dad did believe in equality, even though they also believed in separation.
They also believed, by the way, that all races should be welcome at any house of God, that there should be no such thing as a white church or a black church. Their rationale, they told me once, was when you die everyone goes to heaven and both races are going to be together in heaven and the church is the same thing, just on earth, so you should be welcome at any house of God. So, it was a somewhat complex thing.
But just to be clear, my mom and dad were decent hardworking [people] who believed in fairness, who believed in decency, but they had accepted a long tradition in our country and it was wrong. There’s no doubt that we look back at it now and we know that it’s wrong. But at the time it was a widely held view in Mississippi as well as other parts of the country. And that is to be distinguished from those people who did not even believe in the equality part, the white supremacists.
In June 1963, you and some of your friends from high school penned a letter to the largest newspaper in the state declaring “We are for civil rights for the negroes.” You were for school integration. But that letter also captures other attitudes that were less progressive: You were against the lunch-counter demonstrations. You didn’t like some of the violence that resulted from those demonstrations. You thought that business owners should be able to choose who they serve. What is your reaction to reading that now? And why did you include it in full?
If you’re going to write something like this, you should try to be honest. The whole point of the story is to show the arc of how my views changed and what the reasons were for the change. That letter was written kind of halfway through the arc. Looking back on it, I’m proud of parts of that and some of it I’m not proud of. The part of it I am proud of is where we say very forcefully “We are for civil rights for negroes.” This is before the Civil Rights Act was even introduced by President Kennedy to Congress.
We said in strong terms we condemn white supremacy, analogizing it to the Nazis. And very strongly we said everyone should have the right to vote, blacks and whites included. This was a democracy for goodness sakes. That’s what it means to be in a democracy. So all of those things I’m very proud of. Just remember the time: This was before Title VII was even written. This was before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was ahead of its time in a way.
It was true at the time that my own view then—I changed it later—but my own view then was just like everyone ought to have the right to vote whomever wanted to in this country, if you own a store you ought to serve whoever you want. It’s a free country. That’s what I thought at the time. I changed my mind on that very strongly in 1966, but in ‘63, when I wrote that letter, that’s what I thought. That part of the letter I’m not so keen on.
But when writing a memoir like this you can’t candy-coat what happened. I wanted the reader to see the progress or the trajectory and what the key influences were that might affect somebody. And I think I’m emblematic of a lot of people. This story wouldn’t be worth telling if it was just me. I think this represents how a part of white Mississippi, a part of white America got won over to the right side of history.
What do you hope to leave readers with?
I think it’s important for us with so much division in this country to think about this story and the story of people like me who grew up in that system and yet were able to grow up and change their mind and ask, “How did that happen?” One thing that was a major influence was that while my mom and dad believed in segregation, they also believed in fairness and decency and they really taught that to us. There became a contradiction.
When you get older and you look out at the rest of the state and you recognize how unfair the system is, the fairness and decency that your own mom and dad taught you comes into play and presents a conflict. In some people that conflict is going to end up winning you over to the right side of history and some people it won’t. I recognize that. But nevertheless that basic fairness and decency is a deep character trait of the American people and I think in the long run that’s going to win out.
We saw that in modern times with gay rights. If you went back to 2008, even President Obama was not in favor of equal rights for gays. Gay marriage versus civil unions: That was only several years ago. That was in a way a separate but equal system all over again. But because most people in this country are fair and decent, when they had the opportunity to think about it they yielded to fairness and decency and came over to right side of history.
I think that’s an important lesson and my story is a little story, but it is emblematic of that process.