Alabama native Richard Taylor Rives (1895-1982) left his mark on history as a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana. Rives played a central role in expanding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the “separate but equal” doctrine as it applied to public education to be unconstitutional, into a broad mandate for racial justice. In Alabama, he voted with Judge Frank M. Johnson in overturning segregation on public transportation in Browder v. Gayle (1955) and segregation in public education in Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1963).
Richard T. Rives Rives was born January 15, 1895, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, to William Henry Rives and Alice Bloodworth Taylor; he was one of six children. Rives was valedictorian of his high school class in Montgomery and then spent a year at Tulane University in New Orleans on a scholarship. Having been forced to borrow money from a sister for living expenses, however, he refused to return to college the next year, being afraid he would be unable to repay her. He then took a job with and received his legal training from Wiley Hill, an established lawyer in Montgomery whose family plantation had bordered the Rives plantation prior to the Civil War.
Rives read for and passed the Alabama bar examination in 1914 at age 19. That same year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army; he was mobilized in 1916 at the outbreak of World War I and was commissioned a first lieutenant in 1917 with the Alabama National Guard. While stationed in Macon, Georgia, he met Jessie H. Daugherty, and they married soon after he left the Army in 1919. The couple would have four children, two of whom died in infancy. Rives soon became influential in state politics, directing the 1942 gubernatorial campaign of Bibb Graves, who died prior to the election. He was also a close friend of U.S. senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as well as senators John Sparkman and Lister Hill. Rives served as president of both the Montgomery County and Alabama bar associations.
As an attorney, Rives had one appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, representing the Alabama Public Service Commission in 1951 and winning a favorable ruling. In its decision, the court reversed a lower federal court ruling allowing Southern Railway Company to discontinue local trains in Alabama that were operating at a loss. The Supreme Court ruled that the matter should be decided by state, not federal, courts. The opinion also noted that the predominantly local factor of public need for the service outweighed the rail company’s losses. The state courts agreed.
Considering Jim Crow
A deeply religious man with much patience and an unyielding integrity, Rives nevertheless understood from growing up in Alabama the fears of white southerners facing the possibility of a social transformation that would result in an integrated society and expansion of civil rights for blacks. His heritage included a maternal great-great-grandfather who had served as the first Baptist minister in Montgomery. The Rives family lost its plantation and was devastated financially by the Civil War and its aftermath, but the white supremacist attitudes towards race survived. One historian in particular, C. Vann Woodward, captured the sentiment of the era in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, noting the panic felt by whites and the resistance that followed and the breakdown of communication between blacks and whites in the South.
Rives was considered a man of his time, carrying sentiments common of his race and class. In transcending those racial attitudes, nothing influenced Rives more than his son, Richard Taylor Rives Jr., with whom he developed a very intimate bond. The younger Rives attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Harvard University in Massachusetts and began to confront the issues involved in the race question in the South.
While serving in World War II in the Pacific, Richard Jr. spent weeks in a hospital recuperating from a serious illness, with black servicemen in beds on either side of him. From that experience, he began to develop strong opinions about racial injustice and a desire to work to end that injustice. Richard Jr. was familiar with Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 classic study about African Americans: An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and American Democracy, and discussed its message with his father: that democracy would triumph over racism and that an “American Creed, one that emphasizes the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and fair treatment of all people” should shape political and social interaction in the United States. Myrdal strongly believed that this “American Creed” would keep together the diverse melting pot of the United States. The elder Rives read the two-volume treatise carefully. After the war, Richard Jr. attended the University of Michigan Law School and intended to join the law firm his father had opened in Montgomery but died tragically in a 1949 head-on auto collision in Florida. After his son’s death, Rives decided that should he be offered a federal judgeship, he would accept the position to have more influence on establishing racial equality as a judge than in private practice.
Confronting Jim Crow
The opportunity soon arose when Rives was appointed a judge to the federal Fifth Circuit Court by Pres. Harry Truman in 1951. At the time of his appointment, the court’s jurisdiction covered six former Confederate states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. He would be joined by three judges appointed by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower: Elbert P. Tuttle of Atlanta, John Minor Wisdom of New Orleans, and John R. Brown of Houston. All had been leaders of their state delegations in supporting Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican National Convention. Together, the men became known as “The Four,” a label used by a Mississippi jurist on the court in a dissenting opinion. This label clearly associated their leadership role in dismantling racial segregation in the South to the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In his first civil rights case, Rives sat on the three-judge panel that adjudicated Browder v. Gayle, which ended segregated busing in Montgomery in 1956. Sitting with him were District Judge Frank M. Johnson, a newcomer to Montgomery recently named by Eisenhower, and District Judge Seybourn Lynne of Birmingham, Jefferson County. Rives and Johnson barely knew each other and shared little in common. In the 2-1 opinion, however, Rives voted last and sided with Johnson as the deciding voice. He reasoned that the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) rejection of the separate but equal doctrine that allowed the segregation of whites and blacks in schools also applied to public transportation and likewise violated the Fourteenth Amendment. That ruling, upheld by the Supreme Court, for the first time extended the meaning of Brown beyond the public schools. For this decision and others, Rives was ostracized by former friends and acquaintances and harassed by strangers, and his son’s grave was desecrated.
During his service as Fifth Circuit chief judge from 1959 to 1960, Rives appointed himself to serve on a three-judge court during the 1960 school integration crisis in New Orleans. It was a period of exceptional turmoil as the state government resisted integration, and Rives and the court issued restraining orders to prevent state and local officials from interfering in previous court orders to desegregate the schools. He and the other judges also declared unconstitutional several acts by the Louisiana legislature designed to prevent integration. The panel’s decisions were later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rives and Johnson sat on several important three-judge courts during the decade that followed Browder v. Gayle. They struck down segregation and discrimination in every facet of Alabama life: schools, parks, jury selection, higher education, voting, and legislative reapportionment. In one particularly notable instance in 1963, Rives joined Johnson and Judge Hobart H. Grooms in ruling for the plaintiffs in the far-reaching Lee v. Macon County case, which desegregated public schools in Macon County. Later that year, Rives was part of a temporary five-judge panel that issued an order forbidding Gov. George Wallace from interfering in school desegregation. In 1967, Rives, Johnson, and Grooms expanded the Lee case statewide to public schools not under court orders. Rives and Johnson worked closely together a number of individual school district desegregation plans as well.
In the early 1960s, Rives and Johnson also formed a majority on a three-judge district court that created a legislative redistricting plan. At that time, the Alabama legislature had not been reapportioned for half a century. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which became a landmark decision extending the principle of “one person, one vote” to state legislatures.
Rives also played a major role in the Fifth Circuit setting standards to end jury discrimination. In Goldsby v. Harpole (1957), Rives wrote the order overturning the case of an African American man convicted of murder by an all-white jury in a Mississippi county; no African American within memory had served on a jury there, despite the population being 57 percent black. In Rabinowitz v. United States (1965), a case that stemmed from the Albany Movement in Georgia, Rives wrote an opinion advocating for a jury selection process that would represent a realistic cross-section of the population. Congress later considered Rives’s opinion and the Rabinowitz case when writing the 1968 Jury Selection and Service Act. It prohibited any discrimination in the selection process for prospective jurors, established the use of voter lists and lists of actual voters, and prohibited jury lists that excluded and underrepresented African Americans.
Rives married Martha Blake Thigpen Frazer in 1976, his first wife having died in 1973. On October 1, 1981, Rives was assigned to a new judicial seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. He died one year later on October 27, 1982, in Montgomery and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Bass, Jack. Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South’s Fight Over Civil Rights. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
———. Unlikely Heroes. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1981.