Friday, April 17, 2009

Jack P.F. Gremillion: the den of iniquity

Entertainer Jimmy Durante, at left, with Jack P.F. Gremillion. Image from

First coming to trouble for criticizing a court proceedings as unjust, Lousiana's Attorney General, Jack Paul Faustin Gremillion, was to face justice twice during his 16 years in office.

Gremillion was born in 1914 in Donaldsville, Louisiana. He graduated from the law school at Louisiana State University in 1937 and worked in the local district attorney's office. Gremillion served in the Army during World War II, then returned to work as a prosecutor.

He was elected as a Democrat to serve as the state's Attorney General in 1956, and soon established himself as a staunch advocate of segregation. He led an effort to shut down the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, forcing the organization to suspend its operations in the state for a time. Gremillion also helped draft a state statute allowing the state legislature to determine the racial demographics of the New Orleans schools rather than the Orleans Parish School Board. The move was a way of undermining a court order to desegregate the schools. It was upheld by a state court, as was a suit he filed to have the schools disregard the order. However, this victory came only a month before the first incident to throw the Attorney General into the national spotlight.

In the fall of 1960, Governor Jimmie Davis seized control of the New Orleans elementary schools to block a federal integration order. The move was contested by the NAACP and others, and the matter went before a hearing in federal court. During the testimony, Gremillion contested a decision to place some facts into the record by affidavit rather than by witness testimony. Saying he hadn't received the affidavits, Gremilion asked for a five day postponement in the hearing and was denied. Not long after that, he stormed out of the room, denouncing the proceedings as a "den of iniquity" and "kangaroo court."

The panel of three federal judges declared state laws state laws related to segregation unconstitutional, ordered state officials to cease interfering with integration, and returned control of the New Orleans schools to the school board, of which four of the five members supported integration. In addition, Gremillion was cited for contempt of court and later brought up on a criminal charge of the same. He was given a 60-day jail sentence, which was fully suspended, as well as 18 months of probation.

Gremillion was described as a colorful character. Among other things, he defended his right to not only bar convicted felons from voting but also the mothers of illegitimate children, whom he referred to as "bastardizing females." When two black men were freed from prison and escaped the death penalty after 13 years when they were found to have received an unfair trial on rape charges, Gremillion said he would appeal the decision and take it to the Supreme Court if necessary. "It looks like the court wants to give them a medal for staying in prison," he said. Protesting a Supreme Court ruling upholding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after he and representatives from five other Southern states said that it was unconstitutional, Gremillion bemoaned it as "another step in the total destruction of the rights of states to regulate their internal affairs" that would "also will undoubtedly lead to universal suffrage." Governor Earl Long, who served from 1956 to 1960, declared, "If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion, put it in a law book."

In 1969, Gremillion was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy along with four other men involved with the Louisiana Loan and Thrift Corporation. They were charged with issuing bond investment certificates and lying to potential investors to increase the sale of the certificates. The company went bankrupt in 1968, owing its depositors about $2.5 million.

Gremillion was also indicted in 1970 on perjury charges stating that he lied to a grand jury by denying having a financial involvement in the company, owned stock in the company, and granted a proxy for his shares at a 1967 shareholders' meeting. He was acquitted at trial in 1971 on the fraud and conspiracy charges. Later in the year, however, he was convicted of five counts of perjury.

Gremillion was still able to show a bit of bravado in the face of these troubles. After his conviction, Governor John McKeithen declared, "I'm awfully embarrassed by our Attorney General. I don't know of anything else to do but shoot him." Gremillion responded by heading over to the steps of the Capitol and offering himself up as a target.

In 1972, Gremillion was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence. Federal circuit court judge Fred J. Cassibry declared, "In the United States no man is so small as to be disregarded by the law. Neither is any man so great as to be above it." The conviction doomed Gremillion's chances of winning the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, which went to William Guste Jr. (who went on to serve the next 20 years in Gremillion's place).

Gremillion served 15 months of the sentence before being released. In 1976, he was pardoned by Governor Edwin W. Edwards. Returning to law work, he died in 2001.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, the Federal Judicial Center, Louisiana Knights of Columbus, "Judges Order Integration in New Orleans" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 28 1960, "Desegregation Prospects" in Time on Sept. 5 1960, "Challenge from the South" in Time on Jan. 28 1966, "Some Needed Nudges" in Time on Mar. 18 1966, "In the Shadow of the Chair" in Time on Aug. 26 1966, "Louisiana's Attorney General is Indicted on Fraud Count" in the St. Petersburg Times on Feb. 15 1969, "Grand Jury Indicts La. Attorney General" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jul. 7 1970, "Louisiana Attorney General Convicted" in the New York Times on Sept. 26 1971, "'Shoot Away, Big John'" in the St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 25 1971, "Attorney General Gets Three Years - Lied to Jury" in the Desert News on Jan. 6 1972, "Jack P.F. Gremillion; Louisiana Attorney General, 86" in the New York Times on March 6 2001, Fifty-eight Lonely Men: Southern Federal Judges and School Desegregation by Jack Walter Peltason

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