Bill Minor, Thursday, Nov. 26, 1998
Jasckson - Few of her fellow senators even noticed that Jean Muirhead had slipped down to the well of the Senate and quietly placed an amendment on the clerk's desk. Before the Senate was a bill to raise the qualifications of jurors, adding the requirement that they must be able to read and write.
The date was April 4, 1968. I was sitting at the Senate press table, a few feet away, closely following the proceeding.
First off, when lawmakers were talking about qualifications of jurors, they meant MEN jurors. Women, although nearly a half century after winning the right to vote, were barred by state law from serving on juries.
Another amendment on the desk ahead of Muirhead's was adopted by a little-attentive Senate. Then Muirhead's amendment was called up and read. It was simple. It deleted a single word in Mississippi's long-standing law on who is qualified to be a juror. The word was "male."
Then a freshman senator from Jackson, the shrewd, courageous Muirhead caught all but very few of the senators off-guard. Before the rest realized the historic impact of her simple amendment, they had adopted it by voice vote.
Moments later, when the entire bill with her amendment in it was up for final passage, some senators who realized what they had done, tried to rally their troops, but too late.
"The Bill is Passed," declared Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan from the dais. A reconsideration motion was quickly entered by the stunned committee chairman who brought the bill in the first place. Although a couple of days later when the motion came up, foes of women jurors made a run at stopping this damnable thing, between their phones ringing off the hook from women callers and heavy press exposure, they couldn't.
The momentum for the bill was now so strong, it carried it right on through the Mississippi House and became law, despite opposition from the powerful Speaker C. B. "Buddie" Newman. (Newman entered a statement in the House journal explaining his opposition, which included: "There is a substantial
difference in the demands and the duties required of a male citizen as compared to those demands and duties required of female citizens.")
Only a year before, a test case of women being excluded from juries in Mississippi courts had gone to the State Supreme Court from Lee Court. The high court upheld the ban against women jurors, reasoning(!) that: "women are still on a pedestal, they have the right to be sheltered from the filth, obsenity and noxious atmosphere that so often pervades a courtroom
during a jury trial."
It's hard for many Mississippians to realize today that it was only 30 years ago women were allowed to become jurors. But think of what has happened since: Dirty, grimy courthouses have been cleaned up, restrooms have been installed and cared for, and the quality of justice in this state has been vastly improved. An all-male jury set free the murderers of Emmett Till. An all-male jury twice refused to convict Byron De La Beckwith in 1964, but a jury with seven women did 30 years later. The restroom "problem" loomed big to a number of lawmakers and others against woman jurors back then as an argument agin' the idea. They somehow couldn't figure out how this would be handled. In fact, women lawmakers then and for years afterward had to use the public restroom one floor below
the Senate and House chambers where men lawmakers had their own facility.
Muirhead, rather than being acclaimed and rewarded by Hinds County voters for her historic achievement in the Legislature, was defeated for re-election in 1971. Yes, by a man, who, sadly, was barely literate.
At least 30 years later, Jean Muirhead, now an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, was given recognition here the other day. Now living in Falls Church, VA, she was honored by the Mississippi chapters of the League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women in a luncheon at Jackson State University.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.