Richard Nisley

Simple Justice, book review
History - American Released - Mar 09, 2019
There was so much to be overcome–a mountain of prejudice in the form of state-required segregation (a.k.a. Jim Crow), of seats at the back of public transportation, of separate seating in restaurants and in movie theaters, even separate drinking fountains and restrooms. Add to this separate-but-equal schools as enforced by a Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson), and a lack of good jobs, unequal pay, no right to vote or to obtain a fair trial, and, if you didn't like it and protested too much, a possible midnight lynching (where the local police would be certain to look the other way). To say the playing field was unequal for African Americans in the Old South was putting it mildly. And before anything could be done to change it, much would need to happen including (1) the rise of a new generation of bright African Americans equipped with law degrees and possessed by a burning desire to challenge in court the fiction of separate-but-equal, and (2) the rise of the social sciences that would prove beyond doubt that separate-but-equal schools had a devastating effect on African American children. And the time it would take to come about was 50 years. That, in a nutshell, is the story of "Simple Justice" by Richard Kruger, a long and difficult book that should be studied in schools, as it presents a side of American history that is vitally important to understand, especially if we are to live up to the promise of our Declaration of Independence, with its five stirring words–"All Men Are Created Equal."

The biggest hurdle was racial prejudice, both in the North and in the South–the widespread belief that Negroes were inferior. Writes the author: "In 1896, when the Supreme Court handed down Plessy, most of the nation shared the South's estimate of the black man. When the Justices said in their opinion that segregation 'did not stamp the colored race with a badge of inferiority,' America saw no cynicism in that judgement. The Court, to be sure, had been disingenuous in its suggestion that the inferiority was solely in the minds of the segregated blacks. Had the Plessy Court chosen candidly to declare the prevailing view of the day among white Americans of every station, it would have said that no badge was necessary to proclaim what was self-evident. Keeping blacks separate, everyone understood, would prevent contamination of white blood by the defective genes of colored people, whose unfortunate traits stemmed from their tribal origins in densest Africa and were incurably fixed upon the race from generation to generation. . . . All literature, folklore, and custom of the English-speaking people reinforced the notion that the African's tawny hide was a primal stain. Black was bad. Black was evil. . . . The devil was black; Satan was the Prince of Darkness. Witches practiced black magic. The plague was the black death. Melancholy was black humor. An unprincipled scoundrel was called a blackguard. When things were at their worst, they were said to look blackest. And white was all the things that black was not: it was God, it was good, it was virtue, honor, health. The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville–the masters of the King's English all promoted the easy imagery of black as vile and white as purity and thereby fed a deep and potent racism that well served all who would enslave the black men of Africa."

Offering another point of view, George Bernard Shaw, writing in "Man and Superman" seven years after the Plessy decision institutionalized segregation, said "the haughty American nation . . . makes the negro clean his boots and then proves the moral and physical inferiority of the negro by the fact that he is a bootblack."

It was also believed that African Americans, being inferior, were not as intelligent as white Americans. In the first 20 years of the 20th century this idea was buttressed by a host of "experts" who based their claims on various studies of human anatomy and the results of various IQ tests, based on data that has since proven suspect or outright false. Nonetheless, an impression was created that as a group Black Americans were not as smart of Whites, yet another obstacle on the road to equality.

There followed the rise of the new social sciences with new data that refuted much of this bogus information. Helping in this regard was an anthropologist named Franz Boas, who proclaimed that most students of race relied on casual, if not fanciful, observation of scientific evidence. "Boas brought a Prussian discipline and a physicist's precision to the gathering and weighing of data," writes the author. By 1899, Boas was professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York. In 1911, he published "The Mind of Primitive Man," based on a study of race that disproved virtually all the claims regarding the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.

Further evidence came in the form of a new generation of African American scholars who were being admitted into the nation's best colleges. One of the most notable was Thurgood Marshall, who graduated with honors from Howard University School of Law in 1933. It should be noted that Howard University (a fully accredited law school) was created to meet a need, and catered mostly to black scholars like Marshall who had the grades but not the skin color to gain admittance into law schools in their state.

Marshall graduated cum laude and established a private legal practice in his hometown of Baltimore before founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director. In that capacity, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and notably Brown v. Board of Education, which is the subject of this book.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (to give its full name) was one tough nut to crack because to win Marshall had to disprove the validity of "separate-but-equal," a legal term that with time had gained the sanctity of law. "Separate-but-Equal" was the cornerstone of Plessy v. Ferguson. To be in compliance meant schools had to provide separate facilities for African Americans, whether it was a grammar school, high school, or college. It was not only costly, but very nearly impossible to do. It meant that whatever the white kids enjoyed in their all-white schools–gymnasiums, tennis courts, cafeteria, fully-equipped chemistry labs, music departments, well-stocked libraries, clean drinking water, modern restrooms, and clean safe buses for students to ride back and forth to school–had to be provided for black students, too. States such as South Carolina claimed they met the criteria, but as Marshall and his team got around to the various school districts in the Palmetto State, they found it not to be so. In fact, in most cases the white schools and the black schools weren't even close to being separate but equal. Worse, perhaps, was the stigma that branded black kids once they realized their school facilities were inferior. What it amounted to was a caste system wherein one group enjoyed all the privileges and benefits that society could offer, while the other group was excluded from these very privileges and benefits. What to do? Challenge the school districts in court with proof that separate-but-equal was harmful to black students.

Enter the latest generation of social scientists with their black and white dolls. When asked to identify which doll was best, black kids (even as young as kindergartners) invariably would pick the white doll. In fact, they tended to identify with the white doll over the black doll. It was this way in Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, and South Carolina, the four states where the district courts ruled separate-but-equal was the law, period. These decisions were appealed to the Supreme Court.

Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "In each of these cases other than the Delaware case, a three judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs on the so-called 'separate but equal' doctrine announced by this court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. Under that doctrine, equality of treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware adhere to that doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiff be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the Negro schools.

"The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not 'equal' and cannot be made 'equal' and that hence they are deprived of equal protection under the laws (i.e. the Fourteenth Amendment)." Having been convinced of the social evidence supplied by Marshall's team, he also quoted from Marshall's brief that summed up the case against the schools in question: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law. . . ."

Kruger's book takes time to read and absorb and, at a whopping 778 pages of text, is a long but worthwhile read. What I have presented here is the crux of the story.

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