Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"Inherently Unequal"

In the years immediately following the Civil War, America appeared to possess the will and the means to end racial segregation and give the same rights enjoyed by whites to its 4 million recently freed black slaves. These noble goals, of course, were not achieved for another century. During the intervening decades, the South saw the rise of Jim Crow and Judge Lynch. In "Inherently Unequal," constitutional scholar Lawrence Goldstone convincingly lays the blame for this tragedy at the door of the institution that could have made the difference but did not: the United States Supreme Court.

Until the early 1870s, advocates of Radical Reconstruction dominated politics in Washington. At the same time, voters approved the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, granting the federal judiciary enormous power to effect change. But as President Abraham Lincoln's enlightened Supreme Court appointees left the bench, their replacements began to institute, in Goldstone's words, "the same two-tiered system of justice that had existed in the slave era." President Ulysses S. Grant in particular chose poorly, picking justices who came from corporate practices and had little interest in racial equality. In 1875, one of Grant's selections, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite (shown above), foreshadowed what was ahead. He set aside the conviction in a lower federal court of a white man involved in an 1873 massacre in Louisiana of 100 black militiamen who, after laying down their weapons, were slaughtered by 250 armed whites. Many of those who participated were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

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