Tuesday, March 01, 2005


On the drive home from work a day or two ago, I listened to a one-hour radio program on Thurgood Marshall’s career before he became a Supreme Court Justice. Marshall was the NAACP’s lead lawyer on civil rights cases and was instrumental in the series of legal actions that ultimately led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and beyond.

I was struck by the genuine decency of the man and the cause he championed. I think there are very few Americans who would disagree with the conclusion that the United States is a better place after the abolition of Jim Crow and the beginning of genuine efforts to secure equal rights and treatment of all Americans regardless of the color of their skin. We are far from perfect on this score, but we're better than we used to be.

A few other observations/reactions

1) Marshall argued against “separate but equal” in part because of the claim that separate systems could never be equal and always had an adverse impact on African-Americans. He based this claim on what he argued was irrefutable scientific evidence. I think the specifics of his “scientific” claims probably do not necessarily support his broad contentions. The fact that studies demonstrated that black children preferred to play with white dolls does not, in my mind, automatically translate into evidence that blacks felt inferior to whites (would the choice of a white rock over a black one lead to the same conclusion?). But more interesting to me is Marshall’s firm belief that if “science” determined a conclusion to be valid, then that conclusion must be accepted by one and all. I think in this day and age of skepticism concerning Western-style Enlightenment values and approaches and the proliferation of “alternative” medicine, science etc. it would be much more difficult to speak with such certainty about scientific fact.

2) Much more central to Marshall’s arguments was the fact that equality under the law was an integral part of American founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, not to mention the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments. Marshall simply, consistently, and eloquently called upon the United States to live up to its own declared values. I think that Marhsall would have had a much more difficult case to make had he not had these founding documents to point to. This is, to me, a testament of their importance and lasting impact. The U.S. has not always lived up to all of the values it purports to cherish, but the mere fact that it speaks of such values (and enshrines them into law) gives determined advocates the ammunition they need to assault bigoted and discriminatory practices.

3) Arrayed against Marshall and the NAACP were figures that ranged from hate-filled bigots to probably well-meaning folks who simply hadn’t thought through the ramifications of separate-but-equal or who simply choose not to fight the system whatever their opinions of it. It is difficult to look back on all of them with anything but wonder and at least a little scorn. How could they have sanctioned such obvious evil, such clear violations of all they thought that America stood for? Then I wonder what the Americans of our day will be judged for overlooking, neglecting, or refusing to act? Any number of candidates present themselves as potential possibilities. One that is high on my list is the American prison system. If pressed concerning the issue, I suspect that most Americans would be uncomfortable with a system that condemns all prisoners, even relatively minor, non-violent offenders, to the life of brutality, abuse, and dehumanization that many experience at the hands of both fellow prisoners and guards. But, aside from a handful of committed activists, what do we do about it? Nothing

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