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William Murphy, law professor who challenged segregation, dead at 87


Constitutional law professor William P. Murphy, who enraged Mississippi segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s by teaching that school integration was the law of the land, died Saturday of prostate cancer. He was 87.

He died in Chapel Hill, N.C., where had retired, said his son, Rob Murphy. The family said a memorial service will be held in Chapel Hill and burial will be in Houston, Miss. Dates for the services were pending.

William Murphy taught from 1953-62, at the University of Mississippi, which had the state’s only law school at the time. He moved away from Oxford about a month before federal troops were called in to enforce the admission of the first black student at Ole Miss, undergraduate James Meredith.

He was, “in effect, run out of the state” for teaching law students that public school systems had to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, journalist Bill Minor said Saturday.

“I remember there was some young legislator who was in the (Ole Miss) law school who was talking about this subversive law professor,” said Minor, who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.

Murphy grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and a doctorate from Yale University. When he taught at Ole Miss, it was a training ground for many who went on to serve in elected office.

Murphy said in a 1978 interview for an oral history project that he never set out to challenge Mississippi’s white power structure, including Gov. Ross Barnett. At the time, groups of prominent businessmen called White Citizens Councils were trying to preserve segregation by creating private, all-white academies to keep their children out of racially integrated schools.

“I never really consciously took a stand on anything. I started out just teaching a normal Constitutional Law course,” Murphy said in the 1978 interview, which is posted at a Web site run by the library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“And the only thing that made that unusual or got me in hot water was that that normal approach toward constitutional law and the authority of the Supreme Court was contrary to the basic approach which these Citizens Council types took,” he said. “And that was that the Supreme Court didn’t have the authority, and that there wasn’t any duty to comply.”

Murphy said he set out to teach a constitutional law class in the same style that professors in any part of the country would use.

“The only thing that made it unusual was the time and the place. They apparently wanted the Con Law course taught kind of like it would have been taught at a Citizens Council rally,” Murphy said in 1978. “And I wasn’t about to do that.”

Murphy published a Mississippi Law Journal article criticizing a book that promoted “interposition,” a theory that a state could place itself between the federal government and a citizen if the state believed a federal law or court decision to be unconstitutional or harmful. Segregationists promoted the theory in their opposition to the high court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Murphy said he wrote the critique to “counteract erroneous propaganda.”

“But I never did go up and down the state on a soapbox urging integration and talking about racial injustice. And I never got up at Bar Association meetings and made flag-waving speeches. I never was a civil rights activist in that sense,” he said. “If I had been, I could have more readily comprehended the violence of these people’s reaction to me.”

After leaving Mississippi, Murphy was a law professor at the University of Missouri. In 1967, he published a book called The Triumph of Nationalism: State Sovereignty, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of the Constitution. He retired as a law professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Murphy was president of the National Academy of Arbitrators in the late 1980s. He served as a visiting professor at several law schools in the United States and in Belgium. During the first Bush administration, Secretary of State James Baker appointed Murphy to the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Survivors include his wife, Joy Upshaw Murphy of Chapel Hill, N.C.; sons William Patrick Murphy Jr. of Moscow, Robert H. Murphy of New York and Stephen U. Murphy of Carrboro, N.C.; and one grandchild.

Associated Press

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