Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Awakening to the injustice of segregation

Murphy grew up in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, and it took him many years to conclude that segregation and racial injustice must be eradicated. Although he continues to disagree with some aspects of the <cite>Brown</cite> decision, he welcomed the decision in 1954. He insists that he never took a public, aggressive posture against segregation despite his belief that it was wrong.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Even though you say that you were just doing your job and it was within the realm of academic freedom, the school desegregation cases really are different. Did you have any feelings about them one way or another? If someone else had been teaching constitutional law in the South, Mr. Loewy or Mr. Strong or somebody had been in your position, I think it really would have been different because you were from Memphis, which is sixty miles away. You were a southerner; that was your home. And so did you think about the substance of the cases? You would have been forced to, I guess.
Well, sure, and I wouldn't want you or anybody to think that I was a 100 percent defender of this opinion in Brown against Board. At that time and today, I am critical of the way the opinion was written and some of the premises upon which the opinion rested, and I think I voiced some of those criticisms in my review of the book about Brown against Board. And I still criticize that opinion today when I teach Con Law, and I think most constitutional law professors (I'm not talking about the result of the case now; I'm talking about the opinion that Warren wrote) do not think highly of that opinion. Now so far as the result is concerned, segregation is out… I grew up in a segregated system, not just schools but streetcars and then busses when they came along, where the black people had to get on the front of a streetcar or bus and work their way all the way to the back to try to find a seat in the back of the bus or a streetcar. And where if they wanted to go to a movie theater, they had to go in a side door rather than the front door on the main street, and they had to go sit in the back rows way up in the balcony.
You're talking about in Memphis.
Yes, I'm describing the segregated system that I grew up under and took for granted all the time I was growing up, without ever giving it a thought. And you'd go in the stores, and here was a water fountain with a sign "White Only" or a restroom, "White Only." And maybe there wouldn't be any water fountain or restroom for black people. And I grew up under that system, and I never gave it much of a thought until long after I became an adult. I guess I first began to think about it, maybe, when I was in the Navy during World War II, and then when I was in law school. And I guess it's fair to say that by the time I started teaching at Ole Miss, I had come to the conclusion in my own mind that segregation was wrong and that something ought to be done about it, and not just segregation but racial injustice across the board. My God, I was thirty years old before I really began to rethink all these things that I had grown up taking for granted. But I certainly was not an evangelist or a zealot or anything like that. But I suppose in honesty I would have to admit that I liked what the Supreme Court had done; I was glad they had done it. But I don't think I ever really said that to anybody in Mississippi or in class. And I don't think even today students could accuse me of being a propagandist in any of my classes. I think it's part of a professor's duty to try to fairly lay out different points of view, and I never did try to proselyte in class. But I guess it's inevitable that maybe the emphasis and the nuances and whatnot of the way you teach reflect your own personal views, so I will admit yes, by the time Brown v. Board came down I was an emancipated southern white man at that point in my own thinking.