As if U.S. Freemasonry doesn't have enough problems these days, this story appeared Friday evening from the First Coast news website, via TV station WTLV, the NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida:
It was a dark hidden secret in an already secretive fraternity, until now.
"I felt like that is not right," says Walter Hammond.
Hammond, a Mason since 1961, is fighting to restore his membership and to change an 1893 law that allows racial discrimination.
"It did surprise me," says Hammond. "To me, it runs against the principles of freemasonry where we all are in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God."
Attorney Kevin Sanders represents Hammond.
"You're looking at about 13 million people that are disenfranchised by Florida Statute," says Sanders, "under this law that they cannot be a part."
Sanders discovered the 123-year-old Jim Crow law while preparing his case to restore Hammond's membership.
"This statute has not been repealed, this statute has not been overturned," he says. "As far as I know, this is the first time this statute has been challenged for its unconstitutionality."
He's asking the courts to make it null and void not just for Hammond, but for everyone.
"I'm asking the courts to make it a class action,' said Sanders.
He's confident they can win, but first they have to clear a hurdle of motions to stop the suit from moving forward.
"Kevin thinks we're going to win the case, I hope we do," says Hammond.
The law, Chapter 4281 of the Florida Statues, incorporates the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida. And the language reads, "consisting of Masons exclusively of the white race."
Grand Secretary Richard Lynn says they are aware of the Jim Crow Law and, in 1993, one hundred years later, the Lodge approved a Declaration of Principles to, as he said, negate the 1893 law.
It reads, in part:
"The Digest of Masonic Law of Florida does not authorize a member of a particular lodge to object to the petition for membership to receive the Three Degrees of masonry, or to visitation by an otherwise qualified visiting Mason, if the objection is based upon the grounds of race, creed, color...
...Such objections are illegal under the State and Federal law and Masons are bound to abide by such laws."
Lynn says they would agree to have the language removed from the 1893 law, but they're against dissolving the corporation to accomplish the change.
He says such a move would impact the organization financially.
The case has been filed in Federal Court and goes to trial in November.
Below is the original editorial Walter Hammond wrote in a local Tall Cedars newsletter back in 2008 that caused the uproar in the first place (click image to enlarge):
Apparently, the Grand Master of Florida at the time took offense to the editorial and called Hammond to question him about it. After asking Hammond if the unnamed "incompetent" and "corrupt" "leaders" mentioned in the article referred to him and the Grand Lodge, Hammond glibly replied, "If the shoe fits, wear it."
The complete details and exhibits of Walter Hammond's very extensive Masonic record, his original transgression and subsequent printed retraction, his complete Masonic trial proceedings, and attempts by his lodge to have his indefinite suspension lifted over a three year period, are all contained in the legal filing that is now public record in a civil court, and may be found HERE.
Hammond was a very active and respected Florida Mason for over 50 years, ultimately serving as a District Deputy Grand Master, and he believes his indefinite suspension that is now approaching 8 years was unfair, especially in light of his original infraction. (I'll leave it to the reader to go through the whole legal file and draw your own conclusion.) His home lodge claimed the right to try Hammond themselves, but were denied. A Grand Lodge Trial Commission was appointed instead by the Grand Master.
Many Masons over the years in a wide variety of jurisdictions have complained about the methodology of trial commissions and the capriciousness with which they have sometimes been conducted. Because every grand lodge is sovereign and has their own rules for conducting these trials, they can vary wildly. Some jurisdictions, like Florida, hold that the grand master alone has the right to interpret the meaning of his grand lodge's rules, and these interpretations can change from one year to the next, as the grand master's successor takes over.
The "Jim Crow" law referred to in the article apparently came to light as Hammond's attorney was researching the Grand Lodge of Florida for his civil trial. Lawyers being lawyers, apparently he wants to now pursue a class action suit against the Grand lodge of Florida (although, just who the damaged class actually would be is unclear, and references to it are not contained in the trial filings online).
Civil cases brought by Masons to attempt to overturn the results of Masonic trials rarely succeed in modern memory. Courts usually rely on first following the rules set down by private clubs to redress grievances, and Masonic codes can be extremely arcane.
Hammond's long suspension seems unduly harsh, especially in light of what the original offense was in the first place. (His lodge was forbidden to allow him to even come to family and guest night events, under threat of charges.) It seems a terrible injustice to cast out a 50+ year member, a 33°, and a man who served so many Masonic bodies, starting as a DeMolay in his teenaged years, so I wish him well in his endeavor. But this headline-grabbing attempt to enlarge the lawsuit beyond simply seeking reinstatement will do no one any good, and only bring more bad press in a year that hasn't been going well for Masonry already.
(The Article of Incorporation of the MW Grand Lodge of Florida referred to in the above NBC story can be seen quoted online in the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire for 1894 HERE:)