From Jim Crow to Civil Rights

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Throughout the history of the United States, society has looked to its court system to answer many of the pressing questions that have arisen that both the legislative and executive branches have either been unwilling to deal with, or have handled in such a way that was not acceptable to a majority of Americans. As conceived by the Founding Fathers, the Supreme Court of the United States was created and designed to be the ultimate arbiter of all laws; it alone would decide if laws passed by the federal government were in line with the Constitution. The 14th Amendment, passed as part of a Reconstruction plan that was developed to ensure the rights of the freed slaves throughout the South, required that the states also be forced to follow the various precepts of the Bill of Rights. Increasingly after 1868, the Court had the ability through the 14th Amendment, to increase the role that it could play in protecting the rights of the various minority groups throughout the nation. However, this power was only useful if used, which the Court was continuously unwilling to do. Judicial restraint and original intent continued to be the driving forces behind court rulings through World War II.

In his book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, Michael J. Klarman discusses the plight of African Americans as they continued to struggle for this equality. While hundreds of books have examined this topic from countless prospects, Klarman keeps his unique focus throughout the book on two things – the effect various Supreme Court rulings have had on this struggle for equality under the law and the societal pressures that the court felt when making these decisions. Beginning with Plessey v. Ferguson and continuing through Brown II, Klarman examines in detail numerous cases that helped to shape and define this fight, a fight that many would argue continues today. While countless cases could have been discussed, Klarman keeps the focus of the text on four major topics: segregation, voting rights and disfranchisement, jury selection and finally peonage.

Beginning with a thorough examination of the Plessey ruling, Klarman divides the book up into various eras. Within each era, the author provides a tremendous amount of historical information to assist the reader in putting the various rulings to be examined in context. As a pretext to his study, Klarman also believes it important to inform the reader that at no time throughout the book, will he be providing his own personal opinions on how or why the court ruled as it did; instead, Klarman argues that it is his intent to instead provide the reader with a historical continuum to be used in deciding how and why the court ruled as it did. For example, Klarman defends the Supreme Court for its ruling in Plessey; based on the historical and social context of the time, the Court could not have ruled any other way. Instead of blaming the court for its ruling, Klarman argues that “…the Plessey Court’s race decisions reflected, far more than created, the regressive racial climate of the era.” Further, “…Plessey-era race decisions were plausible interpretations of conventional legal sources: text, original intent, precedent and custom.” (p. 9) Few modern historians have been willing to provide any type of defense for the Court on its ruling in Plessey; while Klarman is not necessarily defending the Court, he certainly finds a defense for their actions. This notion continues to play out throughout the book until Klarman reaches his final court examination – Brown v. Board of Education.

In the final chapter of the book, Klarman provides a detailed examination of the Brown ruling and the effect that it had on the Civil Rights movement. Interestingly, this is also the chapter where the author steps away from the patterns that he had been following throughout the book. With each era examined, Klarman continuously reinforced the reasoning of the courts actions with historical proof, whether they were right or wrong in their ruling. With each ruling examined, Klarman consistently defends the court by arguing that society was not prepared for any other type of ruling and that the only way the court could have ruled differently was if society was prepared for a different ruling. However, with Brown, Klarman refuses to admit that the court may have acted in a premature manner, as society was not prepared for the ruling that it gave. Especially in the South but true also of the rest of the nation, America was not prepared to make the leap of faith forward that the ruling was asking it to make. Even as it becomes apparent to the reader that the court backed off the path it had paved with its ruling in Brown II, Klarman refuses to connect the dots to the obvious error that the court had made in ruling as it did.

This is the major flaw that I found with the book. Klarman continues to follow a pattern throughout that he suddenly does away with when he cannot continue to gain from its use. While it is plain to see that American society was either unwilling or unprepared to deal with the ramifications of Brown, Klarman simply drops the ball by not pointing out that the court in fact was going against societal values that, while they were changing, had not made it to the point that would have allowed Brown the societal acceptance that it needed to succeed.

While this book provided a tremendous amount of historical information and did an excellent job in leading the reader to place court rulings in their proper context, I believe that it could only be used in either a upper level undergraduate course specifically designed to examine the legal history of the civil rights movement or a graduate class on civil rights or 20th century American History. For this class, I found this book to have given me a tremendous amount of information on this topic and to have been of tremendous value. --Tdemharter 23:34, 10 Oct 2005 (EDT)

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