Christopher Columbus Mercer Jr. (1924–2012)
Christopher Columbus Mercer Jr. was an advisor to Daisy Bates during the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. As field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), his legal background helped Bates understand and respond to the flood of litigation against the NAACP.
Christopher Mercer was born Castor Mercer Jr. on March 27, 1924, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), to Castor C. and Tarvell Linda Mercer; his mother soon changed his name. His father worked as a mechanic for the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt) Railroad. His mother owned a dry-cleaning business. He has one brother and one half-brother.
Mercer received his AB in social services from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (AM&N, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1946. He entered the University of Arkansas School of Law in the fall of 1949, along with George W. B. Haley, whose father taught at AM&N. They were the third and fourth African-American students admitted to the School of Law and formed part of the group known as the Six Pioneers for their integration of that institution. The two joined Jackie Shropshire of Little Rock (Pulaski County), who had begun his studies in the fall of 1948. Mercer’s law school education was obtained sporadically because he dropped out of school several times to earn money to pay for it. He received his law degree in 1955, although he had passed the bar exam in March 1954 with the highest score in his group. His license was issued on May 17, 1954—the date of the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
While still an undergraduate, Mercer taught at Corbin High School, a teaching facility on the AM&N campus, teaching algebra, geometry, and U.S. history. After graduation, he became the principal at Conway County Training School in Menifee from 1946 to 1949, where he taught eighth-grade mathematics, algebra, geometry, civics, and American government. While in law school, he taught biology, chemistry, and various math classes (including a business math class for veterans) at Carver High School in Marked Tree (Poinsett County). He also coached Carver’s basketball team.
After his admission to the bar in 1954, Mercer worked for one year in association with Wiley Austin Branton, another African-American graduate of the University of Arkansas’s law school, before becoming involved in civil rights activities.
On June 15, 1955, Mercer married Inez Le May, with whom he had seven children. Following their divorce, he married Pamela James, on May 15, 1984. They had two children.
Mercer was a member of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations. He was Arkansas field secretary for the NAACP in 1957 and 1958 and an “aide-de-camp” to Daisy Bates during the Central High Desegregation Crisis in Little Rock. He drove the Little Rock Nine to and from school during their first semester. In January 1967, Mercer was appointed deputy prosecuting attorney in Little Rock, making him the first black person to hold this position in any Southern state. He served in this position for more than three years. He went into private practice in Little Rock in 1958 and has had two brief associations with other lawyers: he practiced with E. V. Trimble between 1959 and 1961 and with Delector Tiller between 1961 and 1963. In 2004, Mercer celebrated his fiftieth year in the practice of law. In 2011, he received the Silas Hunt Legacy Award, which recognizes African Americans for their achievements and contributions.
Mercer died on November 20, 2012.
For additional information:
Freyer, Tony. The Little Rock Crisis: A Constitutional Interpretation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Kirk, John A. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
Mercer, Christopher, Jr. “Interview with Christopher Mercer Jr.” January 16, 2002. Audio online at Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Arkansas Studies Institute (ASI) Research Portal: Christopher Mercer Jr. Interview (accessed March 30, 2016).
University of Arkansas School of Law
Last Updated: 03/30/2016