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Judicial realignment means closure of historic courtroom

MERIDIAN — The city of Meridian’s only federal courtroom — the site of historical civil rights cases more than four decades ago — will close under legislation passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to President Barack Obama.

The courtroom is located on the second floor of the U.S. Post Office building in downtown Meridian. In the courtroom, trials were held for Ku Klux Klansmen on charges in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers and where James H. Meredith filed his lawsuit in 1961 to integrate the University of Mississippi.

There is no federal judge assigned to the courthouse. Instead, a judge would come in from larger cities.

In September 2012, Congress completed work on similar legislation to realign the federal judicial boundaries for the Northern District of Mississippi, condensing four divisions into three.

U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, both R-Miss., said in a news release that the legislation, which earlier passed the House, consolidates the existing five judicial divisions into four, following realignment recommendations of the federal judges serving in the Southern District of Mississippi.

The divisions still in place are Jackson, Hattiesburg, Gulfport and Natchez.

The Meridian federal building was built in 1933 and takes up an entire city block in downtown Meridian. It has been renovated and expanded several times over the years. The three-story limestone building built in a classical Art Deco style was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Stanley Dearman, retired editor of The Neshoba Democrat newspaper, told The Associated Press last fall that the courthouse was an important venue in the civil rights history of Mississippi.

Dearman was at work at The Meridian Star in 1961 when he was tipped off to be at the federal courthouse.

“I got there and there was James Meredith and his attorney, Constance Motley, filing the lawsuit to integrate Ole Miss. There were months and months of hearings.”

In 1967, a federal grand jury indicted 19 men on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights workers slain by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. The trial was held in Meridian.

Seven Ku Klux Klansmen, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel and Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price, were convicted of federal civil rights violations in the men’s deaths. They received prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.

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