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Monday, July 26, 2004

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Separate but equal acts of reconciliation


NEW YORK -- In "My Life" (Knopf, 2004), former U.S. President Bill Clinton writes: "Elizabeth Eckford, who at 15 was deeply seared emotionally by vicious harassment as she walked alone through an angry mob, was reconciled with Hazel Massery, one of the girls who had taunted her 40 years earlier."

The occasion was a gathering held at the Little Rock Central High School in September 1997 to commemorate the incident that made the capital of Arkansas known throughout the world.

In September 1957, Gov. Orval Faubus used the National Guardsmen to block nine black students from entering Central High. Following a court injunction, Faubus withdrew the state troops, but he kept up his racist warnings and violence continued. Soon President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard while sending 1,000 federal troops to protect the students. The National Guard, despite its name, is normally under the command of the governor of each state.

The Faubus-Eisenhower clash was a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision three years earlier. In May 1954, Earl Warren, the brand-new chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the unanimous opinion on Brown v. Board of Education, saying "The 'separate but equal' doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson has no place in the field of public education."

What was Plessy v. Ferguson? In 1890, Louisiana had enacted the Separate Car Act, which said "all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this state shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored race." The law was one of the early steps Southern states took to dilute, if not nullify, the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which had abolished slavery.

Homer Plessy, a shoemaker who readily passed as a white man -- only one of his grandparents was a Negro -- thought the law irrational and decided to challenge it. He deliberately took his seat in a section set aside for whites and was arrested. He sued, arguing that the law violated the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed "equal protection of the laws." The Supreme Court sided with the Louisiana law. That was Plessy v. Ferguson; the decision gave birth to the "separate but equal" doctrine.

In the next 60 years, Plessy had extraordinarily pernicious effects on America's race relations. For one thing, it justified and perpetuated segregation -- a euphemism for racial prejudice and discrimination -- not just in the South but throughout American society. Moreover, because the U.S. legal system is based on case law, Plessy had to be taken into consideration each time a segregation case was brought to court.

The Supreme Court, indeed, was unable, year after year, to muster enough votes or courage to pronounce the decision unconstitutional, creating an ever more complicated and absurd legal knot that was hard to untangle. The great accomplishment of Earl Warren, who took up "Brown" as soon as he became chief justice, was his ability to see through the manifest problems.

The case combined five suits brought against school districts: Topeka, Kansas; Clarendon, South Carolina; Prince Edward, Virginia; New Castle, Delaware; and Washington, D.C. The argument that ran through these cases was that separate was not equal.

Some justices thought the argument was "sociological," not "legal." What about the decisions built on Plessy v. Ferguson? Four of the justices -- Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas and Robert Jackson -- were legal powerhouses of the day.

Not that Warren was untainted in racial politics. Following Pearl Harbor, Warren, then attorney general of California, had become a fervent advocate of uprooting Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and sending them elsewhere -- "to relocation centers." His action may have been largely a reflection of war hysteria, but it also reflected the racial prejudice that pervaded American society.

The "separate but equal" doctrine, for one, applied to all "colored" people. Gong Lum v. Rice, in 1927, which the Brown decision cites, is a case in point. Gong Lum, a Chinese, sued a Mississippi school district on behalf of his daughter, Martha, who was American by birth. The district had rejected her on the ground that she was "not a member of the white or Caucasian race." William Howard Taft, chief justice, dismissed the suit, saying there is no difference between "black pupils" and pupils of the yellow races.

Warren, as is well-known, went on to become the most consistently liberal chief justice of the Supreme Court in memory. Was he determined to make up for his advocacy of rounding up people of Japanese ancestry? Many consider that act to be the one big blotch in his judicial and political life.

As I reflected on this year's 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I was particularly drawn to Clinton's brief reference to the "reconciliation" in his autobiography. This is because, for many years, one photograph from the Little Rock turmoil has haunted me.

It shows a young black woman in the foreground with a dozen white people following her. She is in a white dress, with a dark note-binder neatly tucked against the left side of her chest. Almost directly behind her and in the middle of the crowd is a young white woman -- also in a white dress, apparently another student. Her mouth is fully open. She is obviously shouting at the black woman.

What is riveting is the black woman's face. She wears large glasses. They at first look dark, but in fact they are not. She looks forward, down. Her mouth is closed. Her face is tense, on the verge of . . . crying? No, but . . .

This young black woman in the photograph, I learned after starting this article, was none other than Elizabeth Eckford, whom Clinton mentions. Clinton, a graduate of Central High, attended the anniversary gathering with "the Little Rock Nine." What he refrains from saying -- but what his State Department's online bulletin for Sept. 25, 1997, noted -- is that Ms. Eckford was the only one of the nine former students who was unable to attend the news conference after the gathering. She was overcome with emotion earlier in the day while attending a church service.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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