The Supreme Court says separate but equal is inherently unequal.
The Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in American public education was unanimous. If anything, world opinion was even more emphatic. Even the Communist powers, we suspect, must privately have applauded the decision. In Kenya a spokesman for the Luo tribe voiced the growing world-wide sentiment against all forms of racial discrimination when he said “America is right . . . If we are not educated together, we will live in fear of one another. If we are to stay together forever, why should we have separate schools?” Quite apart from this sentiment, the decision was especially welcome at this time since it enabled us and our friends abroad for the first time in some years to be equally and simultaneously enthusiastic about an important announcement from Washington. The decision was a fine antidote to the blight of McCarthyism and kindred fevers.
The dead no less than the living must have rejoiced. Among the ghosts that smiled with pleasure–it is somehow easier to imagine them smiling than cheering–were Homer Adolph Plessy, the one-eighth-Negro plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the iniquitous “separate but equal” doctrine was first announced, and his counsel, Albion Winegar Tourgée–who is better known, perhaps, for his novels about the Reconstruction period. Another beaming ghost would be Justice John Marshall Harlan whose great dissents in this and the Civil Rights Cases have at long last been fully vindicated.
Not every ghost smiled, we may be sure. Glum and dour must have been the ghost of the late Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, but in this case, happily, there was compensation. For only a week or so before the Supreme Court’s decision a life-size bronze statue of the Senator was unveiled in the Mississippi Capitol. “His imperfections were infinitesimal,” said Mississippi’s Secretary of State in unveiling the statue, “when compared to the magnitude of his contribution to mankind.”
“If one race is inferior to the other socially,” the majority had said in the Plessy case, “the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” On this assumption the “separate but equal” doctrine was based, and on this doctrine in turn was erected the whole structure of legalized or institutionalized Jim Crow discrimination that came into being in the late 1890’s. With profound insight Justice Harlan, alone among his colleagues, recognized the fallacy and foresaw clearly the long chain of evil consequences. The effect of the decision, as he pointed out, was “to permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.” When his colleagues argued that any “commingling” of the races meant bloodshed and violence, he replied, “If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will be infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race.” To this prophetic warning he subjoined the memorable rescript: “The sure guaranty of the peace and security of each race is the clear, distinct, unconditional recognition by our governments, national and state, of every right that inheres in civic freedom, and of the equality before the law of all citizens of the United States without regard to race.” The Constitution, he reminded his colleagues and us, “is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”