In the 1950s and 1960s, a few special individuals risked their lives and
their liberty by leading civil rights demonstrators in public protests against
segregation. They faced denigration, danger and even death. Martin Luther King
Jr., Medgar Evers, Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer and John Lewis are just some of
the more well-known. But there were others who felt the call of leadership and
sacrificed personal comfort for collective change. One such heroic individual
was Ben Elton Cox.
Cox, an ordained minister and member of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality
(CORE), led young students on sit-in movements and served as one of the original
13 Freedom Riders.
“Some of my family members thought I was a little off. One of my brothers
told me: ‘I’m tired of reading about you and seeing you on television,’” Cox
recalls. “He told me if I would leave the South and come up North, he would
build a church for me.”
Cox continued in his civil rights protest activities in North Carolina,
Louisiana and other states. It was his efforts in Louisiana that led to a famous
U.S. Supreme Court case bearing his name. His case actually led to two Supreme
Court decisions called Cox v. Louisiana (I
that reversed his state-court convictions for disturbing the peace, obstructing
public passages and picketing before a courthouse.
Early passion for civil rights
Cox’s commitment to civil rights
began early in life. Born in Whitesville, Tenn., he wondered about the state of
the world when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. “We would
recite the Pledge and its last words of ‘for liberty and justice for all,’” he
recalls. “I knew the Pledge, but I knew that it didn’t mean what it said because
we had to get off the sidewalks when a white person came by and had to hike up
extra stairs and sit in the worst seats in the theaters.”
Cox’s passion for civil rights grew in high school in Kankakee, Ill., when he
and a couple of friends became offended at a minstrel show, which to them
represented a degradation of his race. Cox and others protested to the
principal, who agreed to stop the shows.
“That served as a catalyst to me in terms of civil rights,” Cox recalls.
He attended college in North Carolina and then seminary at the Howard
University School of Religion. While at seminary, he heard Martin Luther King
and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson speak. They inspired him. So did Mamie
Till, the mother of Emmett Till, a black teen killed in Money, Miss., for
allegedly whistling at a white woman.
After graduation, Cox went to High Point, N.C., where he preached and served
as a youth NAACP adviser, leading protests against segregation at lunch
counters, swimming pools and other places of public accommodation.
“I led the first sit-in protest involving high school students,” Cox
While working with the NAACP, Cox met James Farmer, the founder of CORE.
Inspired by Farmer’s fiery passion and unwavering commitment, Cox took a job as
CORE field secretary for North Carolina and Louisiana. It was in this position
that Cox participated as an original Freedom Rider.
“There were six blacks and seven whites,” Cox says. “We all went on those two
buses fully expecting to die. Farmer told us to write our wills before we went
on those buses.”
Cox survived the Freedom Rides, though not without suffering violence in
South Carolina and Alabama, where, in Anniston, one of the buses was burned.
After the Rides, Cox was sent to Louisiana to help lead protests.
Baton Rouge protest
Cox’s place in history was ensured by his work
in Baton Rouge, La., where he was arrested and jailed at least 10 times. His
most well-known arrest occurred in December 1961. Cox and others in CORE decided
to protest the discriminatory treatment of 23 students from Southern University
who were arrested for conducting a series of sit-ins downtown. Cox took center
stage in the large-scale protest after the police arrested fellow CORE leader
Ronnie Moore for failing to have a permit for a loudspeaker.
Cox led 2,000 students from Southern University on a march near a courthouse
in downtown Baton Rouge. By most accounts, the students engaged in a peaceful
protest, walking in an orderly fashion down one sidewalk before stopping about
100 feet from the courthouse. The protesters bore signs that read, “Don’t buy
discrimination for Christmas” and “Sacrifice for Christ, don’t buy.” They sang
“God Bless America” and “We Shall Overcome.” Cox then delivered a short speech
and urged students also to protest segregation at the lunch counters
Unfortunately, Cox recalls, one nervous sheriff deputy unleashed a tear-gas
shell on the protesters, and the demonstration was dispersed. Cox was taken to a
hospital and released. However, the next day while preaching in the pulpit, Cox
was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy, disturbing the peace,
obstructing public passages and picketing before a courthouse.
Tried in a segregated courthouse, Cox was acquitted of criminal conspiracy
but convicted on the other three charges. The trial judge stated at one point:
“It must be inherently dangerous and a breach of the peace to bring 1,500
people, colored people, down in the predominately white business district in the
City of Baton Rouge.” Cox faced a $10,000 fine and two years in the state prison
in Angola, a place known for its brutality and inhumane conditions.
The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Cox’s conviction on all three charges.
The last hope for Cox was the United States Supreme Court. “I was discouraged by
losing in the state courts but kept hoping and praying that I would win in the
Court of last resort
Cox did “win in the end” before the court of
last resort. On Jan. 18, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Cox’s three
convictions in two separate published decisions. One opinion dealt with the
disturbing the peace and obstructing public passages charges, while the other
opinion dealt with the picketing before a courthouse conviction.
Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote the majority opinions. Cox prevailed 9-0 on the
disturbing the peace charge, 7-2 on the obstructing public passages and 5-4 on
the picketing before a courthouse conviction.
Goldberg wrote that convicting Cox for a peaceful protest was anathema to the
First Amendment. A conviction under these circumstances, he said, “would allow
persons to be punished merely for peacefully expressing unpopular views.”
Goldberg and six other justices reversed the obstructing public passages
charge because the state law gave public officials unbridled discretion in
enforcing the law. The state law allowed parades and demonstrations only if
individuals obtained prior permission and a permit. City officials routinely
allowed parades for many groups, but not for those protesting civil rights. This
selective picking and choosing offended Justice Goldberg, who wrote:
“This Court has recognized that the lodging of such broad discretion
in a public official allows him to determine which expressions of view will be
permitted and which will not. This thus sanctions a device for the suppression
of the communication of ideas and permits the official to act as a
The close margin came with respect to the picketing before a courthouse
charge. Louisiana had passed a law barring such picketing in 1950, modeling it
after a bill in Congress. The federal legislation came about in response to
picketing that followed several trials of communist leaders.
Goldberg recognized that the state had a “legitimate interest in protecting
its judicial system from the pressures which picketing near a courthouse might
create.” He also held that the law was valid on its face from First Amendment
attack. However, Goldberg still ruled in favor of Cox, who had stopped the
protest 101 feet from the courthouse. Goldberg wrote that “at no time did the
police recommend, or even suggest, that the demonstration be held further from
the courthouse than it actually was.”
He reasoned that it would violate due process to convict Cox of violating the
statute when high-ranking police officers seemed to acquiesce to allowing the
protest near the courthouse. Allowing the conviction to stand would, according
to Goldberg, be tantamount to punishing someone for conduct that he was told was
Four justices dissented, with Justices Hugo Black and Tom Clark writing with
strong language. Black warned: “Minority groups in particular need to bear in
mind that the Constitution, while it requires States to treat all citizens
equally and protect them in the exercise of rights guaranteed by the Federal
Constitution and laws, does not take away the State’s power, indeed its duty, to
keep order and to do justice according to the law.”
Justice Clark, former head of the Criminal Division of the Department of
Justice, was more blunt in his dissent. He referred to Cox’s “brazen defiance of
the statute” and opined: “Goals, no matter how laudable, pursued by mobocracy,
in the end must always lead to further restraints of free expression.”
For his part, Cox says the Court’s reversal of his convictions were a victory
for freedom of speech and assembly, rights essential to the civil rights
“Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are what this country is all
about,” he said. “No one should be able to take those constitutional rights from
Cox, who now lives in Jackson, Tenn., remains grateful to the U.S. Supreme
Court and, in particular, Justice Goldberg who wrote the decisions. “I’m still
to this day a little ashamed that I did not write Justice Goldberg and thank him
for his opinion,” Cox says. “He kept me out of prison.
“I look back on the Supreme Court case with pride,” Cox says. “It makes me
Anyone who supports the cause of civil rights and the importance of the First
Amendment should share those sentiments from this First Amendment hero.
Comments from Cox were drawn from an interview arranged by Freedom Forum
Diversity Institute Fellow Ken Mullinax and conducted by Mullinax and David
Hudson, and from a later telephone interview by Hudson.