In 1863, abolitionist crusader Samuel J. May argued that segregated schools would “cause a perpetual imputation of fault, unworthiness and inferiority which would … keep the free Negro depressed.” He warned that resulting class/racial divisions could be fatal to democracy.
In 1896, the United States Supreme Court addressed Homer Plessy’s challenge to a Louisiana law that required railway companies to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” The court found this constitutional, initiating some 60 years of “Jim Crow” segregation.
The court stated, “We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. … The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured by the Negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races.
“We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality it must be the result of … a voluntary consent of individuals.”
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In dissent, Justice Harlan wrote, “everyone knows that the statute had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by … white persons …. under the guise of giving equal accommodation, to compel (blacks) to keep to themselves.
“In my opinion, the judgment … will, in time, prove … as pernicious as … the Dred Scott Case.”
That decision in 1857 held that Negro slaves and their descendants, free or not, were an inferior class of beings, helping to trigger the Civil War.
Harlan stated: “The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together. … State enactments … cunningly devised to defeat legitimate results of the war, under the pretense of recognizing equality of rights, can have no other result than to render permanent peace impossible and to keep alive a conflict of the races. … The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations … will not … atone for the wrong this day done.”
In 1954 the court ruled that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal.
Today’s seemingly increasing bitter condemnations of the nation’s past harken back to May’s warning. One black columnist writes: “America was founded on a promise of freedom for white male property owners, subjugation for white women, violent repression for native Americans and enslavement for blacks. Our nation’s founders weaved the poison threads of racisms and bigotry into the nation’s fabric. …”
Does Plessy’s loss support this narrative? Quoting Atticus Finch in his Farewell Address, President Barack Obama said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
In 1896, the screams of wounded and dying Union soldiers on the battlefields of the Civil War were still nigh. The court faced a dilemma: Risk extraordinary and enduring violence in forcing integration on an unwilling South, or allow, despite concerns, “separate but equal” segregation.
In 1955, following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision requiring school desegregation, a riot erupted when black students sought to attend a Little Rock High School. A thousand U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were sent to protect the black students’ rights.
On Mother’s Day in 1961 a mob of angry whites, some with families in tow, attacked a bus carrying black and white “Freedom Riders” through rural Alabama. The attackers threw bricks and smashed windows.
The passengers barricaded the bus door to keep the attackers out. With cries of “Burn them alive” and worse, a firebomb was thrown through a smashed window. The passengers faced burning to death or leaving the bus to be beaten to death.
Providentially, a fuel tank exploded, scattering the attackers. The riders then escaped with some still hit with baseball bats.
What would have happened in 1896?
Obama also said, “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift … that our Founders gave us. … Our progress has been uneven. … Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. …
“The work of democracy has always been hard … always contentious. Sometimes … bloody. … But the long sweep of America has been defined by a … constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”
This is the nation’s true narrative. With education, understanding and vigilance, it will continue to be.
Daniel O. Jamison is an attorney with the law firm of Dowling Aaron Incorporated in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.