Read the biography of Thurgood Marshal by Juan Williams.
Marshal's life story is like that of Abraham Lincoln, who travelled from a log cabin to the White House. Marshal traversed the path from being a son of a railroad porter to becoming a Judge of the U.S. Supreme Court. But there the similarity ends, for while Lincoln was born a white man, Marshal was a black man,a grandson of a slave. Marshal's life story is a heroic saga of a black man fighting with indomitable will against the injustices to his race.
Apart from the Court cases he fought as a lawyer against racial discrimination, I was particularly interested in the chapter ' Case of the Century ', which was about the famous case Brown vs. Board of Education which was argued by Marshal and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. This decision saved the United States from large scale civil war, because the black man in America was fed up of being treated as an inferior by devious devices like 'separate but equal ', and was prepared to go to any length to establish his equality. And rightly so. When the American Declaration of Independence had proclaimed as far back as in 1776 that ' all men are created equal ', how could anyone rationally justify racial segregation in the 20th century ?
Before considering the Brown decision we have to go back in history.
Blacks had been forcibly abducted from Africa and brought as slaves to the United States in large nuimbers, to work mainly in the cotton and tobacco plantations of the southern states. Following the Civil War ( 1861-1865 ) the 13th Amendment to the UJ.S. Constitution abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment provided for equality and equal protection to all citizens by state laws.
However, despite this, strong prejudices still prevailed against blacks, particularly in the southern states of America ( the former slave states ). In these states , blacks were effectively denied voting rights by various devious devices, such as literacy tests, 'grandfather clauses' etc. Segregation laws were enacted in many of these states.
In the state of Lousiana the state legislature passed a law providing for separate accomodation for whites and blacks in railway coaches. This was challenged by one Homer Plessy who was himself a 7/8 white, but treated as a black ( colored ) by the law. He was arrested when despite having a ticket he refused to get up from a white compartment.
By a 7-1 majority the U.S.Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Louisiana law, on the basis of a devious doctrine ' Separate but Equal '. Broadly speaking what this doctrine said was that if the facilities given to whites and blacks were the same, segregation did not violate equality.
The reality was that black schools were underfunded and had sub standard school buildings, text books, etc
The majority judgment was delivered by Justice Brown, who held : " We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff'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 reply to this observation is simple : what else does segregation do ?
In his minority judgment the courageous Justice Harlan, himself a white southerner, observed : " The thin disguise of 'equal' accomodation for passengers will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done ".
Justice Harlan further observed :
" In the eyes of the law there is in this country no caste. Our Constitution is color blind. All citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his color or surroundings. ".
The law laid down in Plessy continued from 1896 to 1954 when it was reversed in Brown.
A reading of the chapter ' Case of the Century ' shows the tremendous amount of hard work Marshal and his NAACP team did in preparing the case Marshal called conferences of the brightest minds in the country, not just lawyers and law Professors, but also sociologists, anthropologists and even psychologists, to discuss the case from every angle.
Marshal's team was initially split over the question whether strict theoretical legal principles should be used in the arguments before the Supreme Court, or social science data too. Marshal opted for the latter course, which was the technique first started in America by Louis Brandeis ( later Justice Brandeis ) in the famous 'Brandeis brief' in Muller vs. Oregon, 1908. Social science data was collected to prove that segregation had an adverse effect on the minds of black children in school.
As the date for arguments approached, Marshal brought in more lawyers, professors and sociologists, both white and black, to go over every aspect of the case. It had almost become a national enterprise. The conference room was usually crammed with 60 or more people, often standing and shouting. Everyone was motivated by the thought that history was going to be created, one way or the other. A typist who protested for being told to retype a draft for the umpteenth time was told " Alice, don't you know, you are helping make history. "
Marshal, who was then 44, was opposed in the case by the legendary lawyer John Davis, a former Solicitor General of the U.S. Government, who was then. 79.
Someone in his team suggested to Marshal that he should say in Court that the fees of Davis was being paid by some southern racial organizations ( in fact Davis was doing the case free ), but Marshal said he would never stoop so low. In fact, he said, he hero worshipped Davis. While a law student he often skipped classes to hear Davis in Court. When Davis invited Marshal for dinner one day, some of his team members protested that he should not break bread with an old segregationist like Davis. Marshal replied " We are both attorneys, we are boih civil. It is very important to have a civil relationship with your opponent. "
Luckily for Marshal, Chief Justice Vinson, who was known to be pro-segregation, died after the first argument, and the case had to be reheard before a Court presided over by a new Chief Justice, Earl Warren , who was known to be liberal.
In the resumed hearings Davis said that blacks were only seeking ' racial prestige ', to which Marshal replied " Exactly correct. Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation by President.Abraham Lincoln in 1863 the black man has been trying to get the same status as anybody else regardless of race. "
Marshal submitted that not a single lawyer opposing him had refuted any of his sociological evidence of the damage done to the minds of black children in segregated schools. He argued that the only way that the Court could allow blacks to be segregated in public schools was by holding that blacks were inferior to whites. He urged that the only justification for school segregation was the desire to ' keep the people who were formerly in slavery as near that stage as is possible '.
In May 1954, 5 months after the arguments had concluded in December 1953, the Court assembled, and delivered its unanimous verdict, read out by the Chief Justice :
" In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education--a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. To separate black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority./
We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ' separate but equal ' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. "
The decision in Brown's case was a great legal step forward for mankind, and for America it was certainly a step which saved it from an inevitable terrible civil war had the decision gone the other way.
It is true that there is still racism in some parts, and among some people, in America, just as there is still discrimination against dalits in India. But there is no doubt that progress has been made in both countries. The election of Barack Obama is proof of this. His first victory was in the primaries of Iowa, a state which is 95% white.
It is said that there is more crime among blacks, but that is because there is more poverty among them, and poverty breeds crime.
My advice to blacks in America and dalits in India is to prove that you are intellectually equal to whites ( in America ) and upper castes ( in India ), not by resorting to violence but by winning Nobel and other prestigious Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, mathematics and other scientific fields. For this you have to work twice as hard as others in these fields, but that is a sacred duty you owe to your community.