Emory Speer served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, two years as a U.S. attorney, and more than three decades as a U.S. district judge. Outspoken and independent, he upheld legal protections for African Americans during the formative years of Jim Crow, often to the dismay of his fellow white Georgians.
Born on September 3, 1848, in Culloden in Monroe County, Emory Speer was the son of the Reverend Eustace Willoughby Speer, a Methodist minister, and Anne King, both descendants of prominent southern families. At fifteen Speer joined Brigadier General J.H. Lewis’s Kentucky Brigade of mounted infantry, a Confederate outfit largely culled from the ranks of Kentucky’s yeomanry. Lewis’s brigade traveled widely throughout the conflict and enjoyed a reputation for fierceness in battle, though Speer’s only combat occurred at Griswoldville, where the Confederates suffered devastating losses in an unsuccessful attempt to repel Sherman’s March to the Sea.
After the Civil War (1861-65), Speer attended the University of Georgia, entered the law office of Benjamin H. Hill, gained admission to the bar, and set up a practice in Athens. Attracted to politics, Speer served as political editor of a local newspaper and seemed to hold the conventional views of white southern Democrats of his day. But when his bid for Congress in 1877 failed to gain the backing of the Democratic Party leadership, Speer made a decision that affected him for the rest of his public life. Bypassing the machinery of the Democratic Party, the following year Speer ran again as an independent.
Speer won the election in 1878, and his subsequent reelection not only alienated him from Democrats at home but also drew him toward Republicans in Washington. When Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur consulted Speer about federal appointments, some Georgians wondered whether Speer was truly “independent.” As a congressman, he favored a high protective tariff, and he believed in the supremacy of the national government over the states—positions that seemed to put him in the Republican camp. In 1882 Speer gained the endorsement of prominent Republicans, and his open association with the party cost him reelection. Democrats resorted to fraud and intimidation, preventing some African American voters from casting their ballots, in order to ensure his defeat.
In 1883 President Arthur appointed Speer U.S. attorney for the northern district of Georgia. He immediately prosecuted nine white Georgians for conspiring to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate” Black voters in Banks County. After convening a grand jury, Speer brought a bill of indictment against the group of white men, led by Jasper Yarbrough, under the Reconstruction-era Enforcement Act of 1870. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had weakened the Enforcement Act during the 1870s, Speer’s indictment worked within the confines of the Court’s narrow interpretation of the act, charging that the group’s actions were racially motivated and intended to interfere with voting in a federal election. A stirring orator, Speer convinced a Georgia jury to convict all nine defendants by appealing to the rule of law. When the men appealed their convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court in Ex Parte Yarbrough (1884) upheld the guilty verdict and in the process affirmed federal efforts to punish private action that obstructed Black voting rights.
Speer’s success in Yarborough catapulted him to the federal bench. In 1885 Arthur appointed him to the federal judgeship for the southern district of Georgia, where he continued his support for civil rights, issuing important rulings in favor of federal election law and in opposition to peonage, an oppressive labor system that had developed throughout the post-emancipation South. Speer’s appointment required him to relocate to Macon, where he would also serve as Dean of the Mercer University Law School, a position he held for more than two decades.
Perhaps Speer’s most important work in protecting the rights of African Americans came in Jamison v. Wimbish (1904), a habeas corpus petition involving a Black man placed on a chain gang by the city of Macon for his inability to pay a fine stemming from a drunk and disorderly charge. Outraged at the treatment of Henry Jamison, Speer freed him, while offering an expansive interpretation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that upheld the defendant’s right to trial by jury, a decision that prompted debate throughout the national legal community. When the city of Macon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, Speer simply ignored the decision. A subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court of Georgia allowed Jamison to remain free, but it was Speer’s attack on the constitutionality of the chain gang that white Georgians remembered.
Some of Speer’s other views were less controversial. A nationalist who drew from the Civil War the lesson that the South needed to integrate into the nation, Speer pronounced himself a disciple of Alexander Hamilton and viewed economic progress as a means of binding the nation together. In a series of cases involving railroads, Speer attempted to balance the need for economic expansion with federal efforts to regulate in the public interest. And there were limits to his vision of constitutional equality, which placed him more within the southern mainstream. He strongly opposed a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s ban on interracial marriage, for example, and in a 1902 speech, he seemed to shift his stance on Black voting when he publicly lamented that Reconstruction had gone too far in enfranchising African Americans.
Still, Speer made plenty of enemies in his career, and controversies eventually caught up with him. When he favored former president Theodore Roosevelt for the Republican nomination against the incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, the Taft Justice Department began an investigation into Speer’s activities, which led to an inquiry the following year by a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. Allegations included engaging in favoritism toward his son-in-law’s law firm, mishandling bankruptcy cases, defying the U.S. Supreme Court, and exceeding his own court’s jurisdiction. The investigation culminated in two weeks of testimony before a three-member House Subcommittee in Macon and Savannah, in which sixty-two individuals directed a barrage of criticism at Speer, the majority of it relating to his behavior in the peonage and chain gang cases. Despite sensational publicity, the investigations failed to yield any charges. Although Speer was vindicated, the following year his opponents succeeded in passing a bill to divide the southern district of Georgia in two—in effect, cutting his geographical domain in half.
Speer died in Macon on December 13, 1918, four years after the investigations ended.