A Rhodes College professor believes it’s time to reclaim U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas
“What does it mean to say a person is a product of a place — to say that Memphis helped to make Justice Fortas?”
Explore Downtown Memphis, statues of W. C. Handy, B.B. King and Elvis are reminders of the musical talent seemingly etched into the DNA of this city. Read an article about Memphians who made history — you’ll see the names of FedEx’s Fred Smith, Holiday Inn’s Kemmons Wilson, the South’s first black millionaire, Robert Church and Piggly Wiggly’s Clarence Saunders.
Yet the Memphian who won the case that created public defense systems across the U.S., revolutionized juvenile justice, made the cover of Time Magazine and wrote much of the legislation that built President LBJ’s Great Society, in addition to the legislation that established the U.N. and the Kennedy Center — is but a footnote in Bluff City history.
Born to Jewish immigrants in South Memphis, Abe Fortas became one of the most powerful voices in our country. Yet his fall from grace was fast and stunning, so complicating his legacy that even his hometown barely acknowledges his roots.
Now, more than 50 years after his most famous courtroom victory, a Rhodes College professor has published an article that challenges history…. and Memphis… to give the legacy of Abe Fortas another look.
“Scholars have largely ignored Fortas’s early life – they’ve skipped straight to Yale Law School and the New Deal in their discussions of the forces that shaped him,” said Timothy Huebner. “But Memphis played an important part, too. ”
“Ever since I learned that Fortas graduated from Southwestern (now Rhodes College) I have been interested in writing about him,” said Huebner. “As a historian of the Supreme Court and a Rhodes professor, I felt like I had a personal connection to him.
Huebner is the Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, where he has taught the history of the American South and U.S. Constitutional History for the past twenty-two years. He is the author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (2016). His piece on Fortas was published in November.
“Abe Fortas was shaped by the racial and economic inequity that marked early 20th Century Memphis, as well as his liberal arts education. His Memphis experiences and college education instilled in him a unique dedication to the rights of poor and marginalized people.”
With permission from the author and The Journal of Supreme Court History, we share the article: “Memphis and the Making of Justice Fortas.”