The Lawsuit

Case Synopsis: Hawkins v. Town of Shaw was a class action civil rights lawsuit in which Mr. Andrew Hawkins of Shaw, MS was the lead plaintiff.  

September 18, 1969: The case was first filed in 1969 (Case No. 303 F. Supp. 1162) in the U.S. District Court of N.D. MS, Delta Division.  Blacks accused the town officials of violating their fourteenth amendment right in the provision of municipal services.  They felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of race and poverty which was a violation of their civil rights and thus denying them the right to the same quality and quantity of municipal services as they provided to the White citizens and neighborhoods: paved streets and lighting, sanitary sewers, water mains and fire hydrants, and surface water drainage.  Despite compelling evidence, Chief Judge William C. Keady dismissed the case claiming it was not a matter of the courts but rather one to be addressed and resolved at the ballot box.  

January 23, 1971: The case had a little more success when they appealed it in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Case No. 437 F.2d 1286).  Circuit Judge Elbert Tuttle responding for the majority disagreed with the District Court reversing its decision and remanding the case for further proceedings.  He said, the Town of Shaw had in fact violated the fourteenth Amendment (violation of equal protection) and the evidence presented did justify the claim of discriminatory practices in the administering of those municipal services when it came to Black citizens and the Black neighborhoods.  He also added that this case did warrant judicial intervention and could not be resolved at the ballot box.  Judge Tuttle ordered the Town of Shaw to form a bi-racial committee to develop a plan detailing how they would resolve the issue of discriminatory practices in municipal service for the court’s approval.  

March 27, 1972: The case went back to the United States Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit (Case No. 461 F.2d 1171).  This time the Judges looked to see if the Town had begun to adhere to the January 23rd court order of forming the bi-racial committee and developing a plan to address the disparities.  Based on evidence, the Judges said it appeared that the Town of Shaw was acting in good faith to comply with the courts because a bi-racial committee appear to have been formed, and citizens had elected its first Black elected official.  So, in good faith they are taking steps to begin working on a plan to be approved by the city with the final approval of the plan to be done so by the courts.

April 30, 1972: Mrs. Mae Lou Hawkins was murdered by local Black police officer, Andrew Sharpe.  She was shot in the heart with a .22 caliber pistol.

May 1, 1972:  Hawkins v. Town of Shaw was scheduled to be heard for the ruling before the Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit in Aberdeen, MS.  Instead Mr. Hawkins felt it was his duty to skip court and attend the inquest on the murder of his wife.  Upon arrival, he and his children were refused entry. So, he took his children back and home and proceeded to Aberdeen, MS to attend the court hearing.  Gloria Hawkins-Scotts said, her father returned home victorious having won his case and been awarded monetary compensation on behalf of the Town.

Case Background

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Andrew Hawkins stepped out of his home and into flood waters mixed with raw sewage. Disgusted by the putrid smell and worried about the health effects on his children he took a walk around the town to assess the greater situation. He was struck by extreme differences in neighborhoods (Black vs. White) and what he saw was deplorable living conditions in the black neighborhoods and modernized upgraded living conditions in the white neighborhoods. The Black citizens of Shaw were tired of the severely disparate living conditions and the “hard-core neglect” of municipal services (e.g., no access to sewer mains, street lighting, unpaved roads, etc.) in the black neighborhoods by the city council.

Instead of engaging in his usual routine of filing a complaint with City Hall, he wrote a letter to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, which began the initial filing of the lawsuit, “Hawkins vs. Town of Shaw.”  This case over the course of several years (1969, 1971, and 1972) reached the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit 1972. In an astounding decision, The United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision citing that in their judgment the facts were:

“…squarely and certainly support the reasonable and logical inference that there was here neglect involving clear overtones of racial discrimination in the administration of governmental affairs of the town of Shaw resulting in the same evils which characterize an intentional and purposeful disregard of the principle of equal protection of the laws.”

This was a watershed moment for the equal rights movement and it resonated on a national level. The success of this lawsuit had an influence on future court cases nationwide and supported the idea that a municipality could be held accountable for systemic negligence if intentionality could be proved.