"How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" This was one of the test
questions asked of African-Americans attempting to register to vote
in the county seat of Hattiesburg, Miss., in the years leading up
to the early 1960s.
They might have also been asked to write a short essay
interpreting complicated, obscure sections of the state
constitution, such as the section empowering the Legislature to
charter corporations, or the section concerning the title and
leasing of lands in the Choctaw purchase. When they were,
inevitably, told that they failed, the Circuit Clerk Theron Lynd
always insisted he didn't have to tell them which part of the
application they got wrong and made up a baseless rule that they'd
have to wait six months to try again.
Yet getting to the point where they could even take the test was
an effort, since a black applicant might be relentlessly told,
dozens of times over a period of months, to come back because the
clerk was busy.
On the other hand, a white person merely had to give his name,
address and signature and would be registered to vote within
minutes without taking any test or filling out an
The result was that, although the voting age population of Forrest
County, Miss., was one-third black, by 1962, 10,000 whites and 14
blacks were registered to vote. In fact, in the preceding three
years, 2,400 white people had registered and not a single black had
been permitted. The oddity was that, among the African-Americans
who failed the test, were clergymen, war heroes, public school
principals and teachers, some with masters' degrees from Ivy League
"How could it be that blacks with college degrees were considered
not competent to interpret the Constitution and yet there were
whites who had not even graduated high school who were voting?"
asked one of the teachers, Eloise Hopson.
In his impassioned book, Count Them One by One, retired
Massachusetts District Court Judge Gordon A. Martin Jr. recounts
this largely forgotten dark chapter in the American experiment and
how he, a fledgling lawyer in 1962, traveled to the Deep South as
part of the team bringing the Justice Department's first voting
rights case to trial.
What makes Martin's book such a towering achievement is that he
meticulously combines his encyclopedic knowledge of the legal
history of the American civil rights struggle for the right to vote
with personal tales of ordinary poor people with everything to lose
who, through singular grace and courage, overturn a seemingly
omnipotent goliath. Teachers and factory workers risked their jobs
and physical safety.
It is an invaluable scholarly legal volume that reads as a
page-turning adventure yarn.
Whites also showed their mettle. Huck Dunagin, a white shop
steward at the local Hercules Powder Company, said that he himself
was "no integrationist," but something about the denial of the
right to vote for the black men under him rubbed him the wrong way.
"If you want to register … I'll see that you don't lose your jobs,"
he told his black workers.
Martin, then 27, was not restricted to the confines of a
courtroom. He was out in the field, traveling down isolated country
dirt roads, tracking down and interviewing witnesses and getting
his car tires slashed. Once, at a café on a Friday, he was perusing
the menu for a nonmeat dish and the waitress deduced that he must
be Catholic. He left quickly, regretting his possibly reckless act
of drawing attention to his own minority status.
The book's depiction of the landmark trial of U.S. v. Theron
Lynd is riveting, as is its depiction of the openly racist
federal judge William Harold Cox, who was appointed to the bench as
a favor to segregationist Sen. James Eastland, as he throws every
obstacle in the way of the tenacious Justice Department lawyers who
must prove a pattern of racial discrimination. The repugnant Cox
won't even let them obtain discovery, such as a routine request for
copies of the voting records, making it maddeningly difficult to
prepare for trial.
Martin and his cohorts, including their leader, John Doar, the
legendary attorney of later Watergate fame, race to an appeals
court. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sides with them in a
decision that is blistering in its evisceration of Judge Cox's
legally incomprehensible rulings.
Lynd refused to heed the court's orders and, as a result, was the
first southern registrar convicted for civil contempt of
This precedent-setting case was the forerunner of all the other
voting rights cases and was cited as a strong influence for the
Voting Rights Act of 1965. Decades later, Gordon Martin retraces
his path and visits many of the key players in this epic morality
As the particular details of many of these significant, but
lesser-known struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement recede
in the public remembrance and are lost to memory and time, a minor
masterpiece such as this, is not only a compelling work, but an
important one. A group of simple long-forgotten people, comporting
themselves with quiet, understated dignity and grace, selflessly
reared up and triumphantly broke the back of an ugly behemoth of a
Peter Elikann is a CNN legal commentator, author,
Boston-based attorney and chair of the Massachusetts Bar
Association's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section