Christopher Columbus "C.C." Mercer was an African American attorney from Arkansas, one of the "Six Pioneers" who integrated the University of Arkansas Law School, and a key advisor to Daisy Bates during the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
C. C. Mercer (right) with third-year law student Johnathan Carter at the rededication of the Six Pioneers Classroom at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, 2005.
When a person is born, can anyone have any idea what future challenges—or greatness—lie ahead? When Christopher Mercer was born in 1924 in Pine Bluff, could anyone have seen where fate might take him?
Maybe his parents suspected that little C.C. was destined for great things. Mercer’s father worked as a mechanic for the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt) Railroad. His mother owned a dry-cleaning business. They knew the value of a good education and made sure their son got one.
In 1946, after graduating from Merrill High School, Mercer attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (AM&N, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). While still an undergraduate, Mercer taught at Corbin High School, a teaching facility on the AM&N campus, delivering lectures in algebra, geometry, and U.S. history. After graduation, he became the principal at Conway County Training School in Menifee, Arkansas from 1946 to 1949, where he taught eighth-grade mathematics, algebra, geometry, civics, and American government. In 1949, Mercer earned an A.B. in social service.
That fall, Mercer entered the University of Arkansas School of Law, along with George W. B. Haley, whose father taught at AM&N. They joined Silas Hunt, who a year earlier had become the first black student at a white southern University since reconstruction. Of the "Six Pioneers," Mercer was the only one who did not serve in the army during World War II, which meant he had to leave school periodically to earn the money to pay for his education. He put his skill as an educator to work, teaching classes in biology, chemistry, and math (including a business math class for veterans) at Carver High School in Marked Tree. He also coached Carver’s basketball team.
Finally, in 1955, Mercer received his law degree after passing the bar exam several months earlier with the highest score in the state. Mercer received his law license on May 17, 1954, the date of the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a landmark Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
After his admission to the bar, Mercer worked for one year in association with Wiley Branton, another African American graduate of the University of Arkansas’s law school.
Then, he turned his attention to civil rights activities. As an attorney, he served as an NAACP field representative to advise Daisy Bates, who spearheaded the efforts of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Little Rock Central High School. His legal background helped Bates understand and respond to the flood of litigation against the NAACP. Mercer took a personal interest in these courageous trailblazers; he drove the Little Rock Nine to and from school every day during their first semester.
Mercer wanted to make a difference—and he did. He was a member of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations. In 1967, Mercer was appointed deputy prosecuting attorney in Little Rock, making him the first African American to hold this position in any Southern state. He served in this position for more than three years, and then went into private practice in Little Rock. Mercer practiced law for 58 years, frequently taking cases for clients with little or no means to pay for his services. In 2011, he received the Silas Hunt Legacy Award, which recognizes African Americans for their achievements and contributions.
Mercer died in 2012 at the age of 88 after a life well lived.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wikipedia
Image Credit: Frankie Frisco, courtesy of the University of Arkansas School of Law, Fayetteville