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Brown 58 Years Later


Location: Washington, DC

Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL-2) today said, "This is the 58th anniversary of the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which established the legal principle of 'equal protection under the law.' This interpretation provided the legal foundation for the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the modern day civil rights movement. It was the impetus for Rosa Parks sitting down on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955; the legal foundation for President Eisenhower to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957; the foundation for the 1964 Civil Rights or Public Accommodations Act; the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the 1968 Open Housing Act; affirmative action; economic set-asides; majority-minority voting districts and more.

"Today is also ironic in that the Brown decision occurred 58 years after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that established another legal precedent - 'separate but equal' - which allowed Jim Crow laws to legally segregate America with separate drinking fountains, separate rest rooms, separate seats in restaurants and movie houses and more - all of which were 'separate' but 'not equal.' Indeed the 'separate but equal' legal principle made no sense either philosophically or practically. Philosophically, if something was to be truly equal between the races, why would it need to be separate - unless African Americans and Caucasians were somehow different as human beings (i.e., one superior and the other inferior)? Practically, we knew from historical experience, that if these things were separate, they would not be equal. So on both counts 'separate but equal' made no sense!

"There is an even deeper irony in that both courts (Brown and Plessy) looked at the same language in a constitutional amendment - the Reconstruction's 14th Amendment with its mandate of equal protection and due process under the law - and saw two different meanings. That means that words do not make their true meaning and interpretation self-evident. They mean what the politics of the day want them to mean. They are interpreted in a political context - which is exactly what each Supreme Court did in 1896 and 1954.

"That's why," Rep. Jackson concluded, "the election in 2012 is so important. The current mood of conservatives in this country is more in sync with Plessy and anyone nominated to the Supreme Court by a conservative President will more than likely reflect that legal spirit. On the other land, anyone nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama will more closely follow the spirit found in the Brown decision. So, in many ways, when it comes to legal thought, the election in 2012 is again a choice between the spirit of Plessy and the spirit ofBrown."

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