John Satterfield Also Prominent in Citizens Councils Legal Wizardry
By Susan Klopfer
If Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has some explaining to do over Mississippi’s racist past, one of Barbour’s fellow Yazoo City Rotarians, John Satterfield, would also have the same problem – except that he’s dead, so maybe the American Bar Association could enlighten us.
The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy left most civil rights activists grief-stricken. Kennedy had been the first president since Harry Truman to support equal rights for black Americans, even if he was not always successful. Some activists knew that Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president’s successor, had been one of only three Southern politicians who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto in protest of Brown and also orchestrated Eisenhower’s weak 1957 Civil Rights Act that helped kick-start the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But could Johnson, a politician first and foremost, be trusted to work for civil rights instead of supporting his fellow white Southerners – men like Senator James O. Eastland of Sunflower County?
Apparently he could, and on November 27, 1963, President Johnson called for passage of the Civil Rights Bill as a monument to the late President Kennedy. Johnson and others knew this would not be an easy task, but few could have predicted the massive effort coming from Mississippi to undermine this legislation. By the fall of 1963, “Mississippi public funds” were already underwriting “the most active lobby [in Washington, D. C.] against civil rights legislation,” reported Ben A. Franklin in a special report to The New York Times. (It would be learned years later, the majority of funds actually emanated from a racist New York financier.)
Franklin correctly discovered money coming from (actually passing through) the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to initiate activities of the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms, Inc. (CCFAF) at the Mississippi taxpayers’ expense. CCFAF was organized in July 1963, registering as a lobby to oppose the Administration’s Civil Rights Bill and “all similar legislation.” In all, over $300,000 would be collected and spent on this legislation and related Mississippi segregationist projects, according to the New York Times reporter. Sovereignty Commission files, opened to the public years later, revealed the original major source of these funds, Wickliffe Draper.
It was an intriguing group that came together to battle the civil rights legislation: Chairing CCFAF was William Loeb, the controversial and conservative editor and publisher of the Mancheser (N.H.) Union Leader and other newspapers. James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Ledger was Vice Chair while secretary-treasurer and most active top officer was John Satterfield of Yazoo City, a close adviser to Governor Ross Barnett and president of both the Mississippi and American Bar Associations (in 1961 and 1962), positions he used in fighting the Civil Rights Bill.
Satterfield was clearly the conservative’s conservative -- once charging the U.S. Supreme Court with “eroding state’s rights and threatening the country’s liberty and security” by giving “inordinate weight” to the rights of individuals. By the end of the 1960s,Time magazine would label this Yazoo City lawyer as "the most prominent segregationist lawyer in the country.”
A year before the Washington, D. C. effort, Satterfield served as a special adviser to Governor Ross Barnet during James Meredith’s successful integration of the University of Mississippi, and wrote a report to the Mississippi legislature blasting Kennedy and the federal government’s intervention.
Like any power broker, Satterfield had his enemies, including Rev. Ed King of Jackson, a well-known Tougaloo College chaplain and civil rights activist. King had helped coordinate the Jackson lunch counter protests with his ally, sociologist John R. Salter. In a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Methodist Conference rally a year following the murder of NAACP state leader Medgar Evers, King appeared in front of the session to brand Satterfield as “the chief [functionary] of the Nazi operation that operates the state of Mississippi.” Satterfield was attending as leader of the lay delegation of the Mississippi Methodist Conference and King reported on Satterfield’s “$20,000 a year to lobby against civil rights legislation in Washington.”
Despite its detractors, Mississippi’s fight over civil rights legislation, albeit short-lived, was an upscale operation under Satterfield’s direction, with an office suite serving as CCFAF headquarters at the Carrol Arms Hotel, a Capitol Hill landmark overlooking the Senate office buildings.
John Satterfield, born July 25, 1904 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, the son of a Claiborne County attorney, began working part-time in his father's office at the age of ten. Admitted to the Mississippi bar in 1929, Satterfield joined the practice of Alexander & Alexander in Jackson. That same year, the twenty-year-old was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives where he remained until 1932.
In 1969, Time described Satterfield as "the most prominent segregationist lawyer in the country." Satterfield drafted legislation for the Citizens' Councils and acted as counsel to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms. In 1969-70, Satterfield served as special counsel for a number of public school districts across Mississippi and the South seeking to delay desegregation, a consolidated case that reached as high as the Supreme Court.
Satterfield was president of the Mississippi State Bar in 1954-55, and was an active member of the American Bar Association, serving on numerous committees over the years including: Rules & Calendar, Jurisprudence & Law Reform, Resolutions, Individual Rights as Affected by National Security, Continuing Legal Education, Awards to Media of Public Information, Economics of Law Practice (chair). He served on the organization's Board of Governors from 1955 through 1958 and represented Mississippi in the House of Delegates for twelve years. In August 1960, he became president-elect of the American Bar Association and held the presidential office from 1961 through 1962.
Satterfield was also a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, served as director of the American Judicature Society, and also belonged to the American Law Institute, the International Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, the American College of Probate Counsel, the Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association, the International Association of Insurance Counsel. Satterfield was a member the Masons, the Rotary Club of Yazoo City, and the Kiwanis Club of Jackson. He attended both Galloway Memorial Church in Jackson and First Methodist Church in Yazoo City, serving on various local and district boards.
Satterfield died on 5 May 1981 reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Some resources uses for this article
"Satterfield, ex-ABA chief, dies at 76" Jackson Clarion-Ledger (7 May 1981): 10B.
William H. Tucker, The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. 64-94.
Finding-Aid for the John C. Satterfield/American Bar Association Collection (MUM00685), Archives and Special Collections, The University of Mississippi Library
Parts Excerpted from Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited (Klopfer, 2005)