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“Walking In Justice Morrison R. Waite’s Footsteps”: Citizens United’s Legal Roots Lie In The Jim Crow Supreme Court

As John Roberts begins his second decade as the chief justice, a number of Supreme Court rulings during his tenure are once more in the news, perhaps none more so than Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The 5-4 decision, which applied First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech to a private corporation, has been targeted lately by Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (“Citizens United was about me. Think how that makes me feel.”) and Bernie Sanders, who declared this week, “No nominee of mine to the United States Supreme Court will get that job unless he or she is loud and clear that one of their first orders of business will be to overturn Citizens United.” Americans are equally hostile to the decision: A national poll released by Bloomberg Politics this week found that 78 percent of respondents want Citizens United overturned, while only 17 percent support the ruling.

What many Americans might not know, however, is that the manner in which corporations came to be granted personal rights is inextricably linked to a series of late nineteenth century Supreme Court rulings that disemboweled the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and ushered in the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws were passed to create racial segregation.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, was aimed at securing fundamental rights for the four million newly freed slaves. Section 1 conferred citizenship on any person born in the United States, made them citizens of the state in which they resided, and guaranteed all Americans “due process of law” and “equal protection of the laws.” To the man who drafted that section of the amendment, Representative John Bingham of Ohio, this meant that the personal guarantees of the Bill of Rights would apply to state as well as federal law. Most in Congress who voted for the amendment agreed, and we take such guarantees against state action for granted today. And the Fifteenth Amendment, of course, guaranteed black men the right to vote.

But after Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase died in 1873, protections for black Americans began to unravel, all enabled and often mandated by the Supreme Court.

President Ulysses Grant had a great deal of difficulty filling Chase’s seat. Having failed three times to find an acceptable candidate, he settled on Morrison R. Waite. It was not a choice based on excellence. Waite was described by Grant’s attorney general as “sufficiently obscure for the occasion,” and characterized by the Nation as firmly “in the first rank of second rank lawyers.” Stung by the criticism and determined to make his mark, Waite decided to author the majority opinion in the most inflammatory case on the 1876 docket, United States v. Cruikshank.

On Easter Sunday, 1873, 250 heavily armed white men, dragging a cannon behind them, besieged 150 black men who, in the wake of a ferociously disputed gubernatorial election, had taken refuge in the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. The hopelessly outgunned black men surrendered, whereupon the whites proceeded to slaughter them. At least 100 died, some burned alive in the courthouse, others hunted down as they tried to escape into the woods. Federal prosecutors feared that state courts would acquit any of the whites charged, so they turned to a law that transferred race crimes to federal court and indicted one hundred whites for violating the Constitutional rights of the murdered black men. Only three were convicted. (The suspects could not be tried for murder, which was strictly a state crime.) The three appealed on the grounds that under the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal government had no right to restrict the actions of individuals, only states.

Waite agreed. Only if an attack could be proven to have been racially motivated could individuals run afoul of federal law, and the mere fact that 100 black men were massacred by an armed force of whites was not proof enough. Cruikshank and his fellow defendants went free.

Once emboldened, the Court continued to chip away. Also in 1876, in United States v. Reese, the Court ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment did not actually guarantee the right to vote, but only that the right to vote not be restricted on racial grounds. And such restrictions would be almost impossible to prove. In Virginia v. Rives (1879), the Court ruled that a state had to announce that a law was discriminatory in order to violate Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendment guarantees. In other words, that virtually no black men in Virginia were on the voting roles or called for jury service was not in itself proof of discrimination. As a result, restricting voting rights through such contrivances as poll taxes, literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, or other ludicrous tests was perfectly acceptable under federal law.

Then, in 1883, the Waite Court administered the coup de grâce to equal rights when it ruled 8-1 that Congress had no authority to outlaw discrimination by private individuals or organizations and declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was perhaps the most far-reaching legislation of its kind ever enacted by Congress. Section 1 stipulated, “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal and enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” But it was also extremely unpopular. Few white Americans, in the South as well as North, were prepared to sit next a black person in a theater, dine in the same restaurant, or even walk in the same park. Restaurants and hotels closed rather than accept black customers. A New York Times editorial denounced the law: “It has put us back in the art of governing men more than two hundred years … startling proof how far and fast we are wandering from the principles of 1787, once so loudly extolled and so fondly cherished.”

It took eight years, but five cases were combined and brought before the Court. Three were from the North and none from the Deep South. Justice Joseph Bradley, writing for the majority, could not have been more clear. “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the [Fourteenth] amendment.”

In the wake of the Court’s decision and after a number of other cases where the Court claimed to adhere to the letter of the law while bulldozing its spirit, every southern state rewrote its Constitution in a manner that effectively removed black citizens from the political process. Between 1897 and 1900 in Louisiana, for example, the number of black men registered to vote fell from 130,344 to 5,320. And so Jim Crow was born. Between 1890 and 1903, 1,405 black Americans were lynched in the United States.

Then, having rewritten the Fourteenth Amendment to the detriment of African-Americans, the Court rewrote it once more to protect American corporations. It was an era of burgeoning corporate power, particularly railroads, and many of the justices had specialized in corporate law before being elevated to bench. In a seemingly innocuous 1886 case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, a unanimous Court ruled that a railroad could not be taxed for fences that had been erected by the state and were therefore not part of the railroad’s property. More significant, however, was an aside taken down by a court reporter, in which Chief Justice Waite asserted, “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

From there, corporations began to receive the very same Fourteenth Amendment and Bill of Rights protections that had been denied to black Americans, so much so that the eminent legal historian Edward S. Corwin wrote in 1909, “This tribunal began a reinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in the light of the principles of Lockian individualism and of Spencerian Laissez Faire, which traverses the results it had previously reached at every point.” Corporate power soared still more in the wake of the Court’s stance, with critics accusing railroad men and other corporate giants of trying to buy the country.

And these corporate protections, wholly extra-Constitutional, continue to be reinforced today. So in Citizens United, when Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority to grant free speech rights to a corporation established for the sole purpose of trying to buy an election, he was walking in Morrison Waite’s footsteps. Not a particularly exalted place to be.


By: Lawrence Goldstone, The New Republic, October 2, 2015

October 7, 2015 Posted by | Citizens United, Jim Crow, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Part Of A Very Big Problem”: Jim Crow Persists; How Ferguson Case Leaks Revive A Shameful Tradition

On those rare occasions when it makes a real effort to grapple with the raw brutality of Jim Crow, the American mainstream media usually returns to a particular set of images that, by their very nature, are jarring and extraordinary: the burning cross, the hangman’s knot, the Klansman on horseback. This isn’t a bad thing; you can’t understand Jim Crow without understanding the significance of the Klan, for example. But it’s not an entirely good one, either.

The problem with focusing so much on these potent symbols is that it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion: namely, that the only evil of Jim Crow (and U.S. white supremacy in general) was manifested in these menacing, otherworldly forms, rather than in the system’s more humdrum and everyday modes of dehumanization. The problem with the former is easily solved. Today, the burning cross, the noose and the Klansman are all enemies of polite society. But those subtler manifestations of apartheid — the interlocking social networks and political institutions that together worked to disempower black citizens and deny them their rightful place as full members of the community — have proven more difficult to shake.

The proof is all around us, but if you want a more tangible example, the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, is happy to oblige.

After briefly turning the small, hard-luck suburb into the center of the world, the media has as of late been paying much less attention to the story of Michael Brown’s killing, mostly because people on both sides of the controversy have been stuck in an anxious holding pattern, waiting to see if a county grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson. Many observers, and seemingly most pro-Brown Ferguson protestors, expect it will not; and many are already positioning themselves to win the war for public opinion that will ensue the moment the charges (or lack thereof) come down.

That’s the tense atmosphere into which the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently dropped two bombs, both of which cited unnamed government sources saying evidence suggests Wilson’s claim to have shot Brown only after the youth tried to nab his gun — and to have killed Brown only after the wounded and unarmed teenager decided to charge him head-on — is indeed the case, in spite of what multiple eyewitnesses have said. As more than a few people noticed, the leaks all seemed to go in a certain direction (Wilson’s). Rather unnecessarily, the Brown family’s lawyer assured the media that the leaks weren’t coming from them. More necessarily, a forensic pathologist quoted extensively in the Post-Dispatch story said her remarks were taken out of context.

At this point in the story, anyone familiar with the dynamics of American race politics would suspect that like countless racially stratified and unharmonious small-town authorities before it, the establishment in Ferguson was doing its damnedest to quash an embarrassing investigation and protect one of its own. Perhaps aware of the likely widespread nature of that view, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch was swiftly thereafter quoted speculating that the leaks weren’t coming from Ferguson authorities, but rather were the result of the Department of Justice’s machinations. Because the feds recognize that it’s “probably very unlikely” that Wilson will be charged, Fitch said, the DOJ was selectively leaking evidence in order to “let people down slowly” before the announcement of no charges being filed came.

If that sounds a bit odd to you — Fitch’s contention that Attorney General Eric Holder had previously decided to “take over the Ferguson Police Department” is a warning sign — you’ve got some prestigious company. Barely more than a day after Fitch made news, the DOJ was quoted in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere expressing serious unhappiness over the leaks, saying they were “irresponsible and highly troubling” and describing them as “an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” Needless to say, Ed Magee, the spokesperson for the county prosecutor’s office, has denied responsibility entirely. “There’s really nothing to investigate,” Magee told the Times. “All we can control is people in our office and the grand jury, and it’s not coming from us or the grand jury.”

As you can probably tell, I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Eric Holder’s DOJ has all along been playing a secret shell game, pretending to enter into the Ferguson maelstrom in order to sideline local authorities it deemed biased and/or incompetent while, behind the scenes, doing everything it could to protect Wilson and discredit Brown. But even if we end up discovering that the Department of Justice was playing both sides, it would make no difference to the bigger, lingering problem Ferguson revealed — the way the legal and political institutions in much of America still treat black American citizens as if they were separate from the rest of the community, a force to be contained, coerced, managed. (In fact, if Fitch is correct, and the DOJ is trying to “let people down slowly,” it would actually strengthen the point.)

More important than these specific leaks, however, is the way that the behavior of officials throughout the power structure of Ferguson have responded to the protestors as if they were a dangerous, alien presence rather than American citizens who have full and equal rights just like the rest. Instead of trying to reach an accord with Michael Brown’s supporters, the Ferguson establishment is trying to preemptively position itself as a victim, hoping it can win the war for public opinion if and when the chaos of this summer reignites. This isn’t because the overwhelmingly white men and women in positions of authority in Ferguson are especially villainous, but rather because Ferguson, like so much of contemporary America, remains very much the town that racist social engineering built, one in which the unspoken assumption is that black people can never be equal members of their own community.

So, to return to my earlier argument about the visuals of Jim Crow, let’s indeed celebrate that the most extravagant symbols of that terrible era — the burning cross, the noose, the Klansman’s hood — are now widely considered to be ugly and taboo. For a country in which, not so long ago, the lynching of black men was considered a source of public entertainment, that’s no small thing. But let’s also keep in mind that in so far as it was a social and political system that fundamentally denied black people membership in the larger community, Jim Crow still persists.


By: Elias Isquith, Salon, October 25, 2014

October 26, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Jim Crow | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right Defends A New Jim Crow”: 50 Years Since The Civil Rights Act, Wingnuts Still Don’t Get It

Watching the debate over Arizona’s SB 1062 (better known as the state’s anti-gay Jim Crow law) unfold this past week, I couldn’t help but think of the already iconic line from Matthew McConaughey’s “True Detective” character Rust Cohle: “Time is a flat circle.” As is always the case with the nihilistic and willfully esoteric Cohle, it’s not entirely clear what he’s trying to say with the metaphor, but we get the gist: Like Nietzsche’s “eternal return,” Cohle’s flat circle theory holds that all of us are destined to relive every moment of our conscious lives, forever. It’s as if we all were stuck in the late Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” but instead of repeating a single day, we repeat our entire lives.

Beyond the fact that, like many others, obsessing over “True Detective” has increasingly become the chief way I spend my free time, Arizona’s brief foray into the politics of segregation reminded me of the flat circle quote because I had recently seen Bryan Cranston’s Broadway debut, “All the Way,” in which the “Breaking Bad” star plays former president Lyndon B. Johnson during the historic period between Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s reelection, a time when the 36th president was working feverishly to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The play is good and Cranston is great, but what was most striking throughout was how much Johnson’s opponents then sounded like SB 1062’s supporters today. It was, as Cohle would say, some “heavy shit.”

The similarities weren’t merely superficial, either. Sure, the play, written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (who obviously did his homework), was littered with hysterical charges of “fascism” and “socialism” and “big government” from no-name Dixiecrats that most of us never knew or were happy to forget. And of course these moments brought to mind much of the anti-Obamacare rhetoric that has emanated from conservatives during the past five years. But the parallels went deeper than that. It wasn’t just the language that sounded so familiar, but the logic behind it, too. Whether conservatives were defending Jim Crow proper or the Southwest’s latest variant, their worldview, all these years later, was disturbingly unchanged.

To explain what I mean, allow me to cite two of conservatism’s leading lights: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and all-around media mogul Glenn Beck.

As the opposition to SB 1062 increased in fervency and numbers, the usually loquacious Paul was, unlike his fellow Senate Republican John McCain (who opposed the bill), deafeningly mute. Anyone familiar with Paul’s history knows why: Because the obvious presidential aspirant wanted to avoid reminding people of the unfortunate 2010 interview with Rachel Maddow in which he stated that, even today, he would not support the government-run dismantling of Jim Crow. “I don’t want to be associated with those people,” Paul said, referring to white supremacists who’d bar blacks from their restaurants, “but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way…” Paul’s orthodox libertarianism told him that the freedom to discriminate was too valuable, too sacred, to let the federal government stand in its way. Like Sen. Barry Goldwater did in 1964, when he voted against the Civil Rights Act, Paul argued that the Constitution had no room for anti-discrimination.

Roughly four years later, Glenn Beck made a similar argument, this time in defense of SB 1062. After doing his best impression of Hamlet, grappling aloud with his competing interest to not be a bigot while on the other hand maintaining allegiance to his understanding of liberty, Beck cut to the chase, telling his coworkers that he could only support Arizona’s bill, because “freedom is ugly.” Like Paul, Beck was sure to make clear that he held no sympathy for anyone who would ban LGBTQ people from their premises. But also like Paul, Beck had no choice but to conclude that the freedom to ostracize and discriminate was, in part, what the American experiment was all about. “I don’t like that world,” Beck said, “but that’s freedom! That’s freedom! Freedom is ugly. It’s ugly.”

High-profile though they may be, Beck and Paul are hardly the only conservatives who still cling to a vision of freedom that many Americans wrongly thought was swept into Reagan’s “ash-heap of history” decades before. Tucker Carlson — who, if Paul is to be Goldwater, we must describe as today’s version of the braying, segregationist Dixiecrats — was adamant in his defense of SB 1062, saying on Fox News that opponents of the bill were advocating for “fascism” and had gone “too far” in their quest to prevent state-sanctioned bigotry. “Everybody in America is terrified to tell the truth,” Carlson warned, “which is, this is insane, this is not tolerance, this is fascism.” Tellingly, when his sparring partner, Fox’s house liberal, Alan Colmes, asked Carlson whether he would have supported the Civil Rights Act, the editor of the Daily Caller could only respond by saying, “Don’t bring [that] into this,” with a sneer.

Even conservatives who are more intellectually inclined than Beck, Paul and Carlson put forward a defense of SB 1062 that could easily and quickly be adopted to oppose the federal government’s dismantling of Jim Crow. Ilya Shapiro of Cato, libertarianism’s premiere think tank and ostensible guardian of liberty for all, wrote, “I have no problem with SB 1062.” Repeating an argument that was offered by Goldwater, Paul, Beck and Carlson, Shapiro maintained that those who would be discriminated against, were SB 1062 to pass, should simply trust that the free market would punish bigots and, eventually, guarantee their liberty. “[P]rivate individuals should be able to make their own decisions on whom to do business with and how – on religious or any other grounds,” Shapiro wrote. “Those who disagree can take their custom elsewhere and encourage others to do the same.”

The fact that this very same logic recently undergirded a century of Jim Crow seemed to escape Shapiro. Either that or he, like W. James Antle III of the American Conservative, was content to dismiss comparisons to Jim Crow on the grounds that Arizona is not the Jim Crow South and 2014 is not the mid-’60s. “People often argue for or against the civil-rights laws of the 1960s on the basis of abstract principles,” Antle wrote, “but they were in fact a reaction to a very specific set of circumstances.” (This is an argument that, more than anything else, raises the question as to whether this is the first time Antle’s come into contact with an analogy.) Perhaps Shapiro, like Antle, was content to support the bill not because it wouldn’t give the government’s imprimatur to homophobia, but because such an outcome is, in their minds, “not very likely.” After all, what’s a little discrimination in the grand scheme of things?

If we put all these and many other conservative defenses of SB 1062 together, it’s hard not to reach a clear and unsettling conclusion: While conservatives themselves have largely given up the racism that coursed through a previous generation’s defense of Jim Crow, conservatism itself has learned no enduring lesson from the Civil Rights Movement and has made no ideological adjustments as a result. Indeed, National Review’s Kevin Williamson recently declared that Goldwater’s brief against the Civil Rights Act “has been proved correct” for worrying that “expanding the federal mandate … would lead to cumbrous and byzantine federal micromanagement of social affairs.” Going further, National Review’s editors, writing on the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington (which NR at the time opposed) would only concede that the magazine was wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Movement because its principles “weren’t wrong, exactly” but were instead “tragically misapplied.”

For all of her many flaws, Jan Brewer decided on Wednesday to refrain from applying her conservative “principles” in such a “tragic” manner, opting instead to veto the bill and maybe — just maybe — push her party that much closer to joining the rest of us in the 21st century. And while many conservatives received the veto as a crushing disappointment, or even a step toward “slavery,” I’d caution my right-wing fellow citizens against slipping into outright despair. If the events in Arizona have taught us nothing else, they’ve shown that time is indeed a flat circle; future right-wingers will have plenty of chances to keep getting this most basic question of freedom terribly, terribly wrong.


By: Elias Isquith, Salaon, March 1, 2014

March 3, 2014 Posted by | Arizona, Civil Rights, Jim Crow | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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