Adam Liptak | The New York Times | December 26, 2011
Mr. Clemon, who stepped down from the bench in 2009 after three decades of service, was talking about an extraordinary about-face this month from the federal appeals court in Atlanta. He was home with a cold, but he sounded delighted to have played a part in persuading the court that some words still carry the sting of oppression, even in the modern South.
“The court now understands,” Mr. Clemon said, “the unwillingness of black men to go back to being called ‘boy.’ ”
Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that there were no racial overtones when a white manager at a Tyson chicken plant in Gadsden, Ala., called adult black men working there “boy.”
“The usages were conversational” and “nonracial in context,” the majority wrote in a 2-to-1 decision that overturned a jury verdict of about $1.4 million in an employment discrimination case brought by a black Tyson employee, John Hithon.
The decision prompted Mr. Clemon and 10 other civil rights leaders to file a brief. Among the signatories were giants of the civil rights movement like the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, who survived beatings and bombings in Alabama and who died in October, and Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations.
The brief urged the court to reconsider, making the case that “boy” retains its venom. For evidence, the brief drew on personal experiences, history, literary classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Native Son,” and the writings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Boy,” the brief said, is either a proxy for or “at the very least a close cousin” of the most charged racial epithet.
On Dec. 16, more than a year after the initial decision, the appeals court reversed course. The new ruling was opaque and grudging, but Mr. Clemon said he welcomed it, particularly since it is very unusual for a federal appeals court panel simply to change its mind. “I don’t recall it ever happening,” said Mr. Clemon, who graduated from law school in 1968.
Judge Edward E. Carnes wrote the new decision, now for a unanimous panel. He said the court had reconsidered the evidence in the case and “we now reach a different conclusion.”
Stephen B. Bright, the president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, was less magnanimous than Mr. Clemon. He said the case demonstrated “how judges manipulate facts and law to make a case come out the way they want it to.”
“The new opinion flatly contradicts the first one in several places,” Mr. Bright said.
The new decision followed unflattering news coverage of the earlier one and might have been prompted by the possibility of a rebuke from the full 11th Circuit.
On the other hand, the panel had dug in its heels in the face of earlier criticism in the long-running case, including from the Supreme Court.
In 2005, for instance, the appeals court said the meaning of “boy” depended on whether there was an adjective attached.
“The use of ‘boy’ when modified by a racial classification like ‘black’ or ‘white’ is evidence of discriminatory intent,” the court said. But “the use of ‘boy ’alone is not evidence of discrimination.”
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the 2005 decision the following year. “The speaker’s meaning may depend on various factors including context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom and historical usage,” the justices said in an unsigned opinion.
That admonition was rejected by the 11th Circuit panel last year. Then it was embraced this month, though with little enthusiasm.
“The verdict could have gone either way,” Judge Carnes wrote, “and it went Hithon’s way.”
In the end, the new decision upheld a compensatory award to Mr. Hithon of about $365,000. But the decision struck down a $1 million award of punitive damages, saying the manager in question, who supervised 1,400 workers, was not high enough in Tyson’s corporate hierarchy for his actions to be attributed to the company, which in any event had a policy against discrimination.
A Tyson spokesman did not respond to two requests for comment.
Judge Carnes thought it worthwhile to drop a footnote criticizing the civil rights leaders’ brief, saying it had made a minor error in reciting the facts of the case. “Although we welcome amicus curiae briefs that are helpful, misstatements of fact are not helpful,” Judge Carnes wrote, using the Latin term for friend of the court.
Judge Carnes also took a swipe at Mr. Hithon’s trial lawyer, who had elicited testimony at trial about the meaning of “boy.”
“You know,” Anthony Ash, a black Tyson worker, testified in 2007, “being in the South, and everybody know being in the South, a white man says ‘boy’ to a black man, that’s an offensive word.”
“You might as well use the N-word if you are going to say that,” Mr. Ash added.
Then the lawyer uttered the word itself. Saying it, Judge Carnes wrote, was “an improper attempt to inflame the jury.”
There are classier ways to own up to mistakes. Some judges like to quote Justice Felix Frankfurter, as Judge Harry T. Edwards of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit did when he changed his mind in 1994 in a libel suit against this newspaper.
“Wisdom too often never comes,” Justice Frankfurter wrote, “and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.”