A monumental investigation of the Supreme Court's rulings on race, From Jim Crow To Civil Rights spells out in compelling detail the political and social context within which the Supreme Court Justices operate and the consequences of their decisions for American race relations. In a highly provocative interpretation of the decision's connection to the civil rights movement, Klarman argues that Brown was more important for mobilizing southern white opposition to racial change than for encouraging direct-action protest. Brown unquestioningly had a significant impact--it brought race issues to public attention and it mobilized supporters of the ruling. It also, however, energized the opposition. In this authoritative account of constitutional law concerning race, Michael Klarman details, in the richest and most thorough discussion to date, how and whether Supreme Court decisions do, in fact, matter.
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Customer Reviews (11)
Splendid mix of legal and general history
Written by a law professor at the University of Virginia, this book tells the story of the development of American constitutional law relevant to black civil rights from the late 19th century through the 1960s.It tells the story, in short, from Jim Crow to civil rights, and from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education.
This is a legal history.The focus is always on Supreme Court decisions.Klarman, however, goes out of his way to put the legal story into context.He has generally excellent discussions of the political, economic and social forces which influenced the changes in the law.He is so good, in fact, at putting the law into context that at times the book seems to be a general history on the subject of civil rights.It is not.The focus is always on the development of legal doctrine at the Supreme Court level.He does not, for example, make any effort to discuss in detail the legislative side of the story, except insofar as it needed for context to follow what the Supreme Court was doing.
An excellent aspect of the book is its matter-of-fact approach to how the Supreme Court makes decisions.There is, of course, a fierce and ongoing debate within American law between those who feel that the Court should simply follow the law, as intended by those who wrote it, and those who feel that the Constitution should evolve according to changing standards of right and wrong.Klarman does not take a position in this debate, at least not in this book.Instead, he tries to explain how the Court actually has made decisions, as a historical matter.
He sets forth a very sensible common sense analysis.In his view, both legal issues and personal preferences of the judges always enter into the decisions.If the law is clear, he says, the judges usually follow it.If the law is less clear, then the personal preferences of the judges inevitably enter into the equation far more.I think this analysis is by and large very sound.He also has a very sensible discussion of the nature of elite, educated opinion -- which judges represent -- as opposed to everyone's else's opinions.A point that I think he misses is that how far afield the Court is willing to roam is also a function of the Court's institutional self-confidence, which varies over time.When the Court has built up prestige for itself, as it did with Brown, it tends to be more self-confident about pushing the limits of the law.The prestige that the Court got from Brown, in my view, as a great deal to do with why the Court was willing to render the Roe v. Wade decision, which even its supporters now concede had little or no support in law or precedent.
The analysis here of how the Brown decision was rendered is very, very good, as is the discussion of the aftermath of the Brown decision. All in all, this book is a definitive history of a very important aspect of the Civil Rights revolution, the part which came from the Supreme Court.
The Road to Equality:Black Liberation and the Supreme Court
Professor Klarman's book is a study of the interplay between Politics, Social Forces, and legal doctrine.He's searching for the links between political realities and legal rulings.How are they shaping each other?In studying the relations between the decisions of the US Supreme Court and the reality of White-Black relations in the American South, Klarman's conclusion is that the Supreme Court's opinions are very much shaped by the social and political realities.The effect of the Supreme Court's decision on the political landscape is more subtle.
Between the 1890s and the outbreak of the Second World War, the Court's rulings became slowly but steadily more pro-blacks.The earlier decisions were epitomized by the Plessey case, which held that states were allowed to discriminate in public transportation.Only one Justice, former slave-owner John Marshall Harlan had dissented, and argued that the "constitution is color-blind".But even Harlan did not doubt the propriety of segregation in education, and neither he nor any other Justice did much to prevent Lynching, voter intimidation, all-white-Juries and a variety of other discriminatory practices.
In this, the Justices were very much men of their time, an era of unquestioned white supremacy.America was a white man's land; with the Civil War receding into distant memory, White Northerners, who faced increasing immigration of blacks, Asians, and East Europeans, did not feel compelled to intervene on behalf of Southern Blacks.
But even if the Justices were inclined to combat Jim Crow (the popular name of the racist Southern regime), there was not much they could have done.Unlike the post-World War 2 era, the Federal government was not closely engaged within Southern states.Thus the Court's decisions had to be executed by Southern Judges, Politicians, and Policemen - the very leaders of Jim Crow.Furthermore, the legal segregation and discrimination were mostly formalities.Jim Crow kept Blacks "in their place" with the hanging rope and the burning cross, with economic sanctions and social intimidation.Whether their misery was legally sanctioned or not could not have made a large difference in the daily lives of Southern Blacks.
From the outbreak of the First World War to the outbreak of the second, race relations in America slowly improved, and the Judges' decisions became increasingly, albeit subtly, black-friendly.Beaten confessions were thrown out; patently racist disenfranchising laws were declared unconstitutional.The Justices for the first time inferred discrimination in Jury selection from the fact that Juries were, de facto, always white.
But the changes were slow.Only with the creation of Roosevelt's Court, with the appointment of new Justices such as Hugo Black and William Douglas, did the Court stridently strike against segregation and Jim Crow.The shift in the Court during and after the Second World War reflected the social changes in American society, which has become more egalitarian as the economic and political power of Blacks increased, as the nation was becoming more unified, and as revulsion of Fascism translated into widespread anti-racist views.The Cold War also played its part:When America competed for the alliance of Non-Western Countries, Jim Crow has become a liability and an embarrassment.
The New Deal Justices, and their successors, were strongly committed to destroying the racist policies of the South.They ruled against segregation in higher education, against all-white political primaries, against unfair police practices.And most famously, they hit the Apartheid's system's most cherished institution.The landmark case of "Brown vs. Board of Education" barred segregation in public schools.
Brown, Klarman argues, had a paradoxical effect:It made things better by first making them worse.Brown led to desegregation of the boarder South, but not in the Deep South.There, Brown's effect was to radicalize the white population.Before "Brown", Southerners were inclined to allow Jim Crow to be chipped away - the desegregation of higher education and public accommodation caused little or no fuss, and the opposition to voting rights was hardly insurmountable.Southern politicians in the pre-Brown era downplayed the racial element and focused on common 1940s and 1950s era issues:social programs and communist-baiting.
But after Brown, moderation in the South was dead.Rallying against the Northern intervention, moderate Southern politicians either lost their job (Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom) or transformed into fire-breathing segregationist demagogues (the infamous successor of Folsom, George Wallace, who had been a relative moderate in the 1940s and early 50s, as evidenced by his refusal to follow the Dixiecrats in 1948).Accommodation was out - resistance and rebellion became the rule for Southern whites.
The growing belligerency of Southerners played right into the hand of the new generation of social activists, led by Martin Luther King.With boycotts, "Freedom Rides", sit ins, and mass demonstrations, the protestors courted Southern violence.With the flames fanned by segregationist political leadership, Southerners lashed out against schoolchildren, white liberal college students, and ordinary middle class African Americans.The national opinion, formerly weary of forced desegregation, swung.Buoyed by public opinion, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pushed through Congress a radical Civil Rights agenda.Now King and his supporters had the government on their side, and the opposition to desegregation crumbled.
Thus, Klarman argues, by striking at the heart of segregation, the Supreme Court's decision transformed the struggle for Civil Rights from a gradualist movement to a radical one.This is how, because of "Brown", Jim Crow came to an end:not in a whimper, but in a bang.
Supreme Court and civil rights cases
This was required reading for a graduate course in American history.
The question that the author posits is: does the Supreme Court actually affect society? Klarman contends that Supreme Court rulings in the 1940s, specifically when dealing with criminal procedure (as opposed to black enfranchisement), had little tangible impact on the lives of African Americans in the South. He cites four cases, Moore v. Dempsey (1923), which dealt with verdicts rendered amid mob pressure, Powell v. Alabama (1932), which dealt with the appointment of adequate counsel for felonies, Norris v. Alabama (1935), which dealt with jury selections, and Brown v. Mississippi
(1936), which dealt with confessions obtained using torture.
Klarman contends that despite these constitutional safeguard, African American rights were still trampled in the South. He cites numerous "legal loopholes" for circumventing these cases, or in some cases, just blatant disregard. For instance, many times, lawyers were appointed at most a few days before trial, and were unable to adequately prepare. He also cites the reluctance of white lawyers to take on black clients for fear of reprisal, and out of blatant racism. After the Norris ruling, African Americans were usually selected to be in the jury pool, but never on the juries. The use of torture
was always suspect, and a jury would almost always take a white sheriffs word over a black mans if he claimed he was tortured. Lynching and mob violence still permeated Southern Courts as well. Klarman maintains that there was a set of "unwritten laws" which governed the South despite the federal rulings of the Supreme Court.Klarman also contends that the Supreme Court even showed hesitance toward their professed principles. Despite passing this legislation, the Supreme Court did not always enforce their decisions. Despite obvious "miscarriages of justice," many felt that even the presence of these rulings-whether enforced or not-was a step in the right direction (although I think many African Americans would probably disagree with this).It is an argument of intention versus actuality.
He contends that Supreme Court justices are products of their time and rarely make groundbreaking decisions, instead he contends that justices are "a part of the society that they are trying to transform," and cannot truly step outside of that society.Rather, they can only "go with the flow." And this I believe to be his thesis. He cites public opinion at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education, and that those cases were not truly revolutionary because the "tide" of public opinion was moving in that direction.
However, while Klarman denies the existence of tangible gains resulting from these cases, he does not think them futile. Instead, he posits that these cases led to intangible results for the African-American community. Namely, it gave African
Americans confidence that the oppressive system in which they lived could be changed, however slightly. All in all, Klarman believes that these verdicts, while not rendering tangible results, began the impetus to toward a higher race consciousness in the United States, and ultimately to the groundbreaking civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The
decisions showed that change was possible, and thus were relevant, but not in a conventional sense. And I believe this to a story of wider historical analysis. Events such as the civil rights movement usually do not simply "occur," they have visible, sometimes intangible; antecedents that eventually help to birth a new consensuses.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in American history, civil rights history.
An Insightful Work That Should Not Be Missed
This work is full of interesting, insightful, and provocative ideas that will make readers rethink the impact of the Supreme Court's civil rights decisions.I predict that the revisionist arguments in this masterpiece will some day become the orthodoxy.This book will be read by many future generations of American history and law students.
Truly a masterpiece
Having had the opportunity to hear Professor Klarman speak, I knew before reading the book that it would be a great work of scholarship.I was blown away.Meticulously researched, eminently readable, and full of the details necessary to support any conclusions about that troubling time in American history.It's a must read for every law student, historian, and American.
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