Not since George Poindexter had there been a Mississippi governor with a broader range of political experience than Governor James Plemon Coleman. He was also one of the few governors in the 20th century elected in his first campaign for the office.
At the time of his election in 1955, Governor Coleman, who was born near Ackerman on his family farm in Choctaw County, Mississippi, on January 9, 1914, had already served as an aide to a United States congressman, as a district attorney, circuit judge, state attorney general, and justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Governor Coleman was elected in Mississippi’s first general election after the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The Brown case and racial segregation was the overriding issue of the 1955 campaign and Coleman promised to keep the schools segregated. He also emphasized the need for a new state constitution and the need for continued industrial development.
At a meeting in the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion in 1957, Governor Coleman and Governor James E. Folsom of Alabama, along with legislators from both states, initiated plans for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Project. That vast inland waterway, which links the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers with the Gulf of Mexico, was finally opened in the early 1980s.
Governor Coleman was not successful in his effort to secure a new constitution for Mississippi. Although he called the legislature into special session and urged the lawmakers to provide a new constitution, he could not persuade the legislative leadership that a new constitution was necessary.
During Governor Coleman’s administration, the legislature, in response to an increasing concern about school integration, passed a resolution of interposition which authorized the state to prohibit the implementation of the Brown decision in Mississippi. The legislature also created the State Sovereignty Commission to carry out the intent of that resolution and to promote states’ rights. Governor Coleman considered the theory of interposition “legal poppycock.” He was successful, however, in maintaining racial segregation during his four years in office.
After his term expired, Governor Coleman was elected to the state House of Representatives from Choctaw County. He was one of the few men in Mississippi history to serve in all three branches of state government. In 1963, Coleman again ran for governor, but lost in the Democratic primary to Paul B. Johnson, Jr.
In 1965 Governor Coleman was appointed to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. He held the rank of chief judge of the fifth circuit from 1979 to 1981. Judge Coleman retired from the fifth circuit January 31, 1984.
In addition to his public service and legal career, Judge Coleman was also an author and historian. He is best known for his history of Choctaw County titled, Choctaw County Chronicles: A History of Choctaw County Mississippi, 1830-1973.
Coleman died in Choctaw County on September 29, 1991. J. P. Coleman State Park near Iuka is named in honor of Mississippi’s fifty-second governor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
James P. Coleman Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.