As governor of Mississippi, James P. Coleman wrote Martin Luther King in 1956 to dissuade him from making a visit to the state to speak at the fifth annual meeting of the Mississippi Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Regarding King’s visit, Coleman announced that “it would be a tragedy to have professional agitators like [Adam Clayton] Powell and King come to the state and fan the fires anew” (Papers 3:220).
Coleman was born on 9 January 1914, in Ackerman, Mississippi. He attended the University of Mississippi from 1932 to 1935 but left before completing a degree. In 1939, he received his LLB from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After returning to Ackerman, Coleman served as district attorney, circuit court judge, and, briefly, as a Mississippi Supreme Court justice before being elected to a full term as Mississippi attorney general in 1951. He was elected governor of the state in 1955.
In 1956 Coleman sent a telegram to King urging him to postpone a scheduled visit to Mississippi, stating: “I feel it my duty as governor of Mississippi to inform you that conditions in our state are now more tranquil than at any time in recent months and in view of your record your appearance here will be a great disservice to our Negro people” (Papers 3:220). The next day, King responded that, in fact, he was not scheduled to visit Mississippi, but if he were, he would feel obligated to “come to Mississippi in spite of [Coleman’s] most cautious warning. You stated that in view of my record my coming to Mississippi would be a great injustice to the Negro people. I think if you would observe my record very carefully you would discover that it is more the record of a peace maker than a peace breaker” (Papers 3:221).
After serving a full term as governor, Coleman joined the state legislature in 1959. Coleman was criticized for his support of President John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign; Kennedy later used federal troops to integrate the University of Mississippi. Coleman attempted to run for governor again in 1963 but was defeated by Paul B. Johnson, a more extreme segregationist. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Coleman to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. As a federal judge, Coleman was responsible for implementing desegregation changes that he had opposed as governor. He retired from the court in 1984.