Courthouse noted for historic civil rights trials to close

MERIDIAN — The federal judiciary says it will close the courthouse in Meridian where 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.

The Meridian building is among six courthouses in the South to be closed because of inadequate federal funding. The others are in Gadsen, Ala.; Pikeville, Ky.; Wilkesboro, N.C.; Beaufort, S.C.; and Amarillo, Texas, the Judicial Conference said.

None of those closing has a judge who is based there. Instead, judges travel from larger cities, as needed.

Republican U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, whose district includes Meridian, said the decisions about courthouse closures were made by a panel that’s independent of congressional oversight.

“Even so, my staff and I have closely monitored the conference’s proceedings since April in hopes that they would find justification to maintain operations in Meridian,” Harper said in a statement. “I was disappointed today to learn that the Judicial Conference included Meridian in their list of announced closures.”

Stanley Dearman, retired editor of The Neshoba Democrat newspaper, told The Associated Press that the courthouse contains too much history to be closed.

“It has been an important venue in the civil rights history of Mississippi,” Dearman said. “There were so many cases of a historic nature and lesser ones, too, that maybe didn’t attract as much attention. I can’t imagine Meridian being without a federal district court.”

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.”

A federal appeal court in New Orleans ultimately ordered the state to register Meredith at the university in Oxford. He began attending classes in October 1962.

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.

The courthouse 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.

The closings were ordered by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a group of 27 judges led by Chief Justice John Roberts that sets policy for the federal courts.

The courthouses will close over the next several years.

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