American Portraits

John Minor Wisdom: Dauntless Decision Maker

In this lesson, students will learn about how John Minor Wisdom courageously stood up against discrimination and segregation as a Circuit Court judge.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

In 1905 New Orleans, life was segregated between black and white. Small attempts to change these divisions had followed the Civil War, but the ethnically diverse and lively city was officially split. In the New Orleans of John Minor Wisdom’s youth, there were separate railroad cars, drinking fountains, lunch counters, voting requirements, and neighborhoods. Even burial grounds for many were segregated. His childhood stomping grounds were all white, his friends were white, and his family’s roots in the city ran deep….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can your courageous actions help to promote equality?

Virtue Defined

Courage is the capacity to overcome fear in order to do good.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how John Minor Wisdom courageously stood up against discrimination and segregation as a Circuit Court judge.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze how John Minor Wisdom was courageous despite opposition to his beliefs.
  • Students will evaluate Wisdom’s behavior and determine ways in which they can be courageous even if their beliefs are unpopular.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of courage to their own lives.

Background

John Minor Wisdom was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1905. Wisdom attended Washington and Lee University and graduated with a law degree from Tulane University. He served in the Army and practiced law before being nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court in 1957. Throughout his career, Wisdom was an active advocate for desegregation.

Vocabulary

  • Advocate
  • Desegregation
  • Anti-discrimination
  • Diverse
  • Integration
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Pivotal
  • Appalled
  • Calculated
  • Equal protection clause
  • Conscious
  • Literacy tests
  • Foiled
  • Relentless
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was John Minor Wisdom’s role in the civil rights and anti-discrimination movements?
  • What was Wisdom’s purpose in fighting against discriminatory practices?
  • What actions did Wisdom take to fight discrimination?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Barrow, Deborah J., and Thomas G. Walker. A Court Divided: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Politics of Judicial Reform. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Bass, Jack. “John Minor Wisdom, Appeals Court Judge Who Helped to End Segregation, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. 16 May 1999.
  • Bass, Jack. Unlikely Heroes. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
  • Braver, Rita. “True Wisdom.” CBSNews.com. 20 May 1999. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1999/05/20/sunday/main47855.shtml.
  • “In Tribute to John Minor Wisdom.” Tulane Law Review 60, no. 2 (Dec. 1985): 231–377.
  • Spivack, John M. Race, Civil Rights, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Judicial Circuit. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

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