Civil rights cases pursued by the U.S. Justice Department are defined differently than they were 50 years ago when department attorneys were literally by James Meredith’s side during the integration of the University of Mississippi.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder marked the 50th anniversary of Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi Thursday, Sept. 27, during a visit to the Oxford campus.
It was 50 years ago Monday, Oct. 1, that Meredith became the first African-American student to successfully enroll and attend classes at the university.
Holder recalled the U.S. Justice Department effort that backed Meredith with personal direction from President John F. Kennedy. And he also recalled the federal troops deployed onto a violent campus.
“Although the importance of what took place here 50 years ago can hardly be overstated – its immediate impact is difficult to measure,” Holder told those at Ole Miss. “That’s why, in the end, I believe these events mark not exactly a turning point in our history – but an inflection point.”
Holder linked the efforts before and after Meredith’s enrollment to change America with current Justice Department efforts to pursue police misconduct, hate crimes and human trafficking criminal cases.
“In themselves – on their own – such events may not transform the shape of our society – at least not overnight,” Holder said as he talked of Meredith’s decision on his own to enroll at Ole Miss and other individual actions of the civil rights era. “But it is in these extraordinary moments that our nation’s character is revealed – and our future determined.”
As part of Holder’s visit to the campus, federal prosecutors from Memphis were part of a panel discussion at the University of Mississippi School of Law on human trafficking cases the Memphis office has been pursuing in the last year. The office is one of the leaders across the country in the number of cases involving women and girls forced into prostitution that it has prosecuted.
The most recent case was the arrest on federal charges of Memphis Police officer Sean McWhirter. He is specifically accused of offering three women for prostitution in Memphis and Tunica County while he was on and off the job. Like some of the earlier cases in Memphis federal court, McWhirter allegedly used the website backpage.com to offer the women’s services.
McWhirter took the three women to a Memphis nightclub last November, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the charges, and announced to the crowd at the club that they were available for sex and that he controlled them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Skrmetti talked about his work pursuing the cases in Memphis federal court during Thursday’s panel discussion, which was co-moderated by Ed Stanton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. Federal prosecutors from across the country were in Oxford for the panel discussions organized by the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights.
Skrmetti was with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department and pursued police corruption cases in Memphis federal court in that capacity before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney with the office.
The trafficking cases are part of a civil rights division Stanton established in the Memphis office, which pursues civil and criminal cases across the western federal district of the state of Tennessee.
Justice Department officials announced last week two new initiatives nationally.
One is to work with attorneys who provide pro bono legal help to victims. That includes assistance on immigration issues.
The second is a trafficking victims grant program that helps provide services including shelter and medical and mental health care as well as legal help in applying for visas and for adjustments in their legal status if they are immigrants.