By Lawrence Goldstone. Walker and Co. 252 pages. $26
Reviewed by Charles Shea LeMone
CHARLES SHEA LEMONE is an author in Ferrum.
Throughout “Inherently Unequal,” the author chronicles a long list of Supreme Court rulings, from 1865 through the dawn of the 20th century, that nullified a succession of civil rights laws. Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th guaranteed all citizens equal protection in the courts of law; and the 15th gave black men the right to vote, these laws were ultimately empty words in terms of relevance.
In the wake of the Civil War, the South was decimated, millions of dollars in debt, and under martial law. Conversely, the North had experienced four years of record profits and had established a firm base on which to build fortunes. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and one term of Andrew Johnson, President Ulysses Grant’s administration personified a Republican party more concerned with business rights than civil rights, specifically when it came to manipulating the stock market.
Meanwhile, two main forces were at work with separate polarizing agendas. The Radical Reconstructionists sought total equality for the “freedmen.” The Redeemers, including the Ku Klux Klan, were intent on upholding their state rights by force, intimidation and the reinterpretation of federal laws.
A perfect example of bending the laws came in a written statement by Justice Joseph Bradley concerning the question of whether an individual could be compelled to adhere to the Bill of Rights. He concluded, “The Fifteenth Amendment confers no right to vote. That is the exclusive prerogative of the states. It does confer a right not to be excluded from voting by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and this is all the right Congress can enforce.”
Another convoluted Supreme Court ruling — pertaining to a defendant being tried by a jury of his peers — required proof that racial discrimination was intentional when a black man was convicted of murder by a jury of 12 white men. The decision stated, “The fact that no blacks had ever served on a local jury was not evidence that they had been systematically excluded.”
Following several days of recounting ballots, backroom dealings, and claims of fraud, Rutherford Hayes became the 19th president of the United States. In what has become known as The Compromise of 1877, one of Hayes’ first orders was to have federal troops withdrawn from the South. Until then, he had been thought of as a friend of the Negroes. However, the day the troops marched away ended any hopes of Reconstruction in the South. A few years later, the Supreme Court, by an 8-1 vote, overturned the Civil Rights Act.
As Goldstone writes in this provocative historical account, “The United States had become the nation of Jim Crow laws, quasi slavery, and precisely the same two-tier system of justice that had existed in the slave era.” Although the average reader may find this book a tedious read, anyone interested in judicial procedures will want to add “Inherently Unequal” to their library.