Learning from Simple Justice and Black America’s Struggle for Equality

by Mr. Sheehy

A little while back I read Simple Justice, a book a college buddy (now history professor) recommended years ago that I read. After watching The Help, my interest in civil rights was rekindled (about half of the projects I did in high school tied into civil rights) and I trotted down to the library to pick up Richard Kluger’s history of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I was not impressed by the 800 pages, recalling instantly Ambrose Bierce’s quip about the covers of a book being too far apart, and in truth I think the book could have been shorter, but that didn’t stop me from reading it all (and enjoying most of it).

Kluger has a definite opinion about how one should approach and interpret law, and while mine would probably differ from his if I were to learn more about the subject, I was in enough agreement with him, particularly as it regarded the rights of black Americans to full equality, to enjoy the book thoroughly.

I found the story of Charles Houston’s life and work in famous cases and at Howard University particularly inspiring, such that if I were in high school today and had to pick a topic for a speech or paper, his name would top the list. We as Americans are in debt to people like Houston, people who sacrificed their personal lives for a cause only posterity would fully enjoy.

Charles Houston, whose extremely high standards as dean of the law school at Howard University ultimately changed America's history.

Reading the specifics of Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson was disturbing, and I plan to pull some of the excerpts I read in Simple Justice into my American Literature classes next year. One of the most rank sentences in Justice Brown’s Plessy opinion was this:

The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. (74)

With a quick stroke of the pen, Justice Brown separated political equality and social equality, something the Fourteenth Amendment never did. To my mind it is easy to see such words as one of the most tragic sentences in American history. Imagine if he’d never written it. The separate but equal history that followed it might not have had a legal foot upon which to stand. Yet Justice Brown did write it, and like so many Americans to follow him, he didn’t see segregation as objectionable at all:

Laws permitting, or even requiring, [racial] separation in places where [the races] are to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. . . . (74)

How separation does not imply inferiority when it is one race insisting upon the separation at the expense of the other race is something Justice Brown would not admit. Louisa Holt, in her testimony for the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, pointed out quite succinctly the problems with such reasoning:

The fact that it is enforced, that it is legal, I think, has more importance than the mere fact of segregation by itself does because this gives legal and official sanction to a policy which is inevitably interpreted by both white people and by Negroes as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. Were it not for the sense that one group is inferior to the other, there would be no basis–and I am not granting that this is a rational basis–for such segregation. (422)

Such an argument was considered in 1896 when Plessy was decided, but Brown simply brushed it off as a construct of the black race:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two race stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. (79)

To call that Plessy opinion insulting does not begin to describe it. It represents a special kind of denial of or blindness to what is right, a display of how we can perpetuate unrighteousness. Reason is a good tool, particularly as it regards determining justice, but it is as subject to human sin as any other part of us. Looking back on Plessy and the slavery that preceded it and the racial oppression that followed it, knowing that each step was reasoned out and carefully justified, I find myself humbled, because I know those who propagated such sin and rationalized its existence were just as human as I. As Elie Wiesel has pointed out about his Nazi tormentors: they loved their children, they loved music, just like anyone else. To look down on Justice Brown and the segregationist South as more susceptible to unrighteousness is to make me a Pharisee–the older brother of the prodigal son, one who is just as unable as they to see my own rotten humanity. It gives me pause, because in our day there are surely sins of which I am part of perpetuating, likely as blindly, and I wonder if I have the courage to pray for God to reveal to me my own sin. That’s a prayer, my pastor pointed out this weekend, that God tends to answer if we’re willing to pray it.

Thanks for reading.