Attorney retraces steps taken in civil rights work

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 22, 2010

When Peter Swords came to Mississippi 44 years ago to help free jailed civil rights workers, he didn’t know it would change his life, but it did. Last week, the attorney came back to retrace his steps.

“I had a radical conversion when I came down here. I lost interest in making money or anything like that. I got very interested in people trying to do things for other people – social service groups,” said Swords, now 74. “I would not be teaching nonprofit law today if I had not come down here.”

As a lawyer with the firm of Cadwalder, Wickersham & Taft in New York City, Swords was assigned to work with a Jackson law office led by Denison Ray in 1966 and 1967. He worked on cases in Port Gibson and Grenada.

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“The Claiborne County story about civil rights is a real miracle,” he said. “They would arrest the movement people and try to get them to jail where they would not cause any trouble,” he said. “Our job was to go down and get them out of jail.”

During that time, he represented Port Gibson resident Rudolph “Rudy” Shields, jailed during the voter registration movement, and 14 school-aged children, jailed in Grenada for trespassing at a movie theater.

He said he traveled to both cities last week but was unable to visit with any of the people he had represented.

Swords did not win the Shields case in Claiborne County, but he was able to get the 14 released in Grenada — just after the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law came to the state.

President John F. Kennedy, whose campaign included a pledge to end racial segregation laws common in the South, called for lawyers and young associates at large law firms in areas such as New York and Philadelphia to address the problem in the South.

Swords said authorities were committing a federal crime by infringing on Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed after Kennedy was assassinated, which provided rights to public accommodations, such as restaurants, motels and movies, on a race-neutral basis.

“One of the most exciting things, I mean the scariest part of my life, was after I came back to Jackson. Two or three days later, I’m sent back up to Grenada with affidavits for these kids to sign,” Swords said.

He was greeted by a bomb scare at the law office’s Grenada headquarters at Bell Flower Missionary Baptist Church on East Pearl and Waters streets.

During last week’s visit to Grenada, he had hoped to talk with the 14 on how they felt about peeking out of a candy store window as 30 law officials with shotguns and rifles were trying to scare the group, “which they did quite effectively,” Swords said.

Instead, he visited Bell Flower, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once delivered a message.

In Vicksburg through today, Swords and his wife, Brenda, toured the Vicksburg National Military Park and Christ Episcopal Church on Main Street, where Brenda Swords’ great-great-uncle Stephen Patterson ministered from 1847 to 1853. They were particularly interested in seeing a  monument erected in his honor at the church.

Swords teaches at Columbia University School of Law and Teachers College at Columbia University and practices with a team for Indian Saint Amma, the “hugging saint” in southwest India.

“She is the absolute manifestation of altruism in helping people and caring for people,” he said.

Swords said he hopes to return to Mississippi with one of his two daughters and visit the friends he has made throughout the state as well as find the children, now about 55 or 60 years old.

Swords graduated from Harvard in 1957 and from Columbia Law School in 1962.

He was a counselor for the Income Tax Bureau at the New York City Finance Administration from 1966 to 68; a program officer for the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility from 1968 to 1972; an associate dean for Columbia University School of Law from 1972 to 1987; an instructor for Columbia University School of the Arts; and executive director and president of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York from 1987 until his retirement in 2000.

Swords wrote “Charitable Real Property Tax Exemptions in New York State” in 1981, and he co-authored “The Costs and Resources of Legal Education” with Frank K. Walwer in 1974.

Contact Tish Butts at