Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 9
The Biggest Coup in History?
This is Part 9 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1.
In 1776 a small group of ill-prepared and ill-equipped nobodies in a distant outpost on the fringes of civilization started a war with their overlords, one of the Most Powerful Empires in the World.
Britain entered the war with confidence; it had the world’s most powerful navy, a well-trained professional army, a sound financial system that could pay the costs, a stable government, and experienced leadership. [Source]
Six years later, the unthinkable happened.
In London, as political support for the war plummeted after Yorktown, British Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris (for the U.S.) and the Treaties of Versailles (for the other Allies) were signed on September 3, 1783. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783. [ibid]
That little, supposedly impotent, group had succeeded in kicking out of their territory one of the greatest powers in the world! What a triumphant, astonishing coup!
Ah, but it can’t compare to the coup of ’62-’63. That is, 1962/1963. For that year, a little group of only twelve men managed a far more astonishing coup. The unmatched Greatest Coup In History!
They managed to kick the Great God of the Universe out of…all of the public schools of the United States!
At least, that’s the story told by a lot of folks these days. And it must be true, because you can find many articles on the Internet, written between that period and the present, that dogmatically declare it is so. As well as a whole lot of “meme” pictures that regularly make their way around Facebook and elsewhere, with people urging you to “Share if you agree.” They insist that since that fateful time, “God is not allowed in the schools.”
Those twelve men in the photo above comprised the Supreme Court of the United States in 1962, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren (center, above). (Which led to them regularly being referred to in news stories and elsewhere as “The Warren Court.”) The lamenting about God not being allowed in schools is related to two specific “rulings” handed down by this court, related to public school matters. The first, in 1962, declared that “mandated prayer” (prayer established and required by the school or state authorities) in public schools was unconstitutional. The second, in 1963, declared that “mandatory Bible readings” and related required “devotionals” in public schools were also unconstitutional. Thus the Warren Court was accused by many Americans at the time of “kicking God out of the public schools.”
Many to this day blame this “kicking out” for a wide variety of the ills of modern society. That includes everything from broken marriages, spread of pornography, racial unrest, and violent crime, to drug abuse, decline in “patriotism,” and yes, even a decline in SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores! Well-known evangelical Christian activist and author David Barton’s book America: To Pray or Not to Pray provides charts on a number of topics showing, he claims, the direct and immediate results in society of Kicking God Out of the Schools. And yes, one of his charts shows the decline in “average” SAT scores, and attributes that decline directly to the 1962/63 Supreme Court decisions.
I’m not really sure of the theology behind that SAT claim! After the 1962/3 rulings, if your school obeyed the ban on government mandated prayer and Bible readings, but you personally prayed to get a good score on your SAT, did the school’s action negate your private prayer? Did God just ignore your pleas for His help in getting right answers? Or maybe He just stood outside the schoolhouse door, chagrined because He couldn’t get in and close enough to help you?
I happened to take the SAT test in fall of 1963, the year after the Supreme Court “prayer in schools” decision. I don’t remember praying at all privately and personally for God to help me get good test results. I’d never been in a school that had mandatory prayers or Bible readings, and even if I had, by the time I took my test, the bans were in effect. How am I to understand the fact that I got the highest score my school counsellor had ever seen on the SAT? Is it just possible…that there is a classic logical fallacy at play in Mr. Barton’s hype? This is one that comes to mind:
Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc (Literally: “After this, therefore because of this”): This type of false cause occurs when the writer mistakenly assumes that, because the first event preceded the second event, it must mean the first event caused the later one. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. It is the honest writer’s job to establish clearly that connection rather than merely assert it exists. Example: “A black cat crossed my path at noon. An hour later, my mother had a heart-attack. Because the first event occurred earlier, it must have caused the bad luck later.” This is how superstitions begin. [Fallacy list]
But…what other factors could possibly account for such a close correlation between the beginning of the decline in SAT scores, and the dates of the Supreme Court decisions? A couple come to mind…one is the increase in the sheer numbers of people taking the test. In 1951, only 80,000 or so students took the test. By1961, it was about 800,000. And by 1971, it was up to about 1.5 million. Why the increase in those taking the test? The SAT is a test taken specifically by those hoping to go to college. In the late 1940s and 1950s, that would have mostly been white students from middle class, upper middle class, and upper class families who could afford college, and who had had access to high quality educational opportunities as children and teens so they could academically qualify for college entrance. And white military veterans recently returned from WWII, and/or Korea, taking advantage of the GI Bill, which provided funds to veterans to pay for higher education.
Black veterans could apply for GI Bill funds too, but the reality is that many of them had not been prepared by their substandard pre-war education in inferior, segregated school systems, to satisfy college entrance requirements. Vast swaths of the US provided that type of substandard primary and secondary education to blacks in that period. And even if a black veteran had excellent educational credentials and skills, there were relatively few “black colleges” for him to attend, and a very limited numbers of openings provided for blacks even in so-called “integrated” colleges across much of the land.
And even when admitted…conditions were often miserable. Here is George McLaurin.
In 1948 he held a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and had been teaching at an all-black university in Oklahoma. But he wanted to get a PhD in school administration in Oklahoma…so you see him above, taking his classes at the University of Oklahoma College of Education. Yes, he is relegated to sitting in an alcove off of a classroom so that white students would not feel forced to interact in any way with him. He was later promoted to a special classroom chair cornered off by ropes and railings, and occupied similar “facilities” for his trips to the library and cafeteria. “Separate but equal,” don’tcha know.
Yes, in the environment of the 1950s, a very limited number of black, and lower class white, students would have even bothered with taking the SAT. And even the brightest of black high school graduates who could have scored well on it often lacked the finances to pay tuition and board to go to college, so weren’t in the pool of students who took the test.
With the advancement of integration of high schools and colleges once the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the mid-to-late1960s and early 70s, more and more students would be entering into the pool of those aspiring to college education, and taking the SAT tests. But again, for some time many would not have had the advantage of the kind of good-quality grade school and high school education that would have made them test-savvy!
And as the years continued on, the pool got larger and larger, with more “average” students from white families in lower socio-economic classes also aspiring to higher education. More sources of scholarships and financial help became available, making college more accessible to a larger and larger proportion of high school grads.
All of this could not help but bring the raw “average” score for the SAT down. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t still a large number of students scoring high on the test. It just means that they were balanced more evenly against the increasing number of average students participating in the test pool.
And it most surely doesn’t mean that these fluctuations had anything at all to do with Supreme Court decisions about prayer and Bible study in 1962 and 1963.
But if you are not familiar with just what those decisions were all about, perhaps you are still not persuaded that those 12 men didn’t “kick God out of the schools.” I am convinced very few 21st century Americans have more than a vague notion of what actually was involved in those rulings made so long ago—I know I wasn’t all that clear myself until brushing up on the topic recently. So let’s take some time to examine a bit of historical background.
The Warren Court
“The Warren Court” is the short-hand way to refer to the Supreme Court during the period when the Chief Justice was Earl Warren, 1953-1969. During those years the court handed down a number of rulings that are well-known to this day, including the one that established the “Miranda Rights” of people accused of crimes…made popular on TV crime shows as the police intone, “You have the right to remain silent…”
Up until the court’s rulings of 1962/63 about public school prayers, bible readings, and devotions, the most famous and influential—and controversial—decision handed down by the Warren Court was regarding the case of “Brown v. Board of Education”…the decision that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
This decision overturned a previous decision by a much earlier Supreme Court:
Plessy v. Ferguson
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, completed the process of making enslavement of anyone in the US illegal. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all those former slaves (and all persons born in the US in the future), and required that they be afforded “equal protection under the law.” One might think that this was understood at the time to be an absolute guarantee that discrimination or separation in daily life based on race would be forbidden, but that isn’t how it was interpreted by many state and local governments.
Thus by the late 1800s, a whole raft of what were eventually dubbed “Jim Crow” state and local laws and customs hemmed in African-Americans from every side in many areas of the country, especially the Deep South. There was some resistance to this situation, with various challenges to such laws brought before courts. This all came to a head in 1890:
In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law (the Separate Car Act) that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, a group of prominent black, creole [bi-racial], and white New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) dedicated to repeal the law or fight its effect. They persuaded Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, to participate in an orchestrated test case.
Plessy was born a free man and was an “octoroon” (of seven-eighths European descent and one-eighth African descent). However, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the “colored” car.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket at the Press Street Depot and boarded a “whites only” car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana. The railroad company, which had opposed the law on the grounds that it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy’s racial lineage, and the intent to challenge the law. Additionally, the committee hired a private detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure that he would be charged for violating the Separate Car Act, as opposed to a vagrancy or some other offense. After Plessy took a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it, and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately by the detective. As planned, the train was stopped, and Plessy was taken off the train at Press and Royal streets. Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish. [Source]
His case was first presented locally, before Judge John Howard Ferguson.
Ferguson ruled that the state had the right to regulate railroad companies operating within its borders. Thus Plessy was convicted and ordered to pay a $25 fine. Plessy and his supporters, of course, rejected this decision and proceeded to appeal Judge Ferguson’s ruling to higher courts. At this point the name of the case became the famous “Plessy v. Ferguson.”
Taken eventually to the Louisiana Supreme Court, Plessy lost his challenge again, as that court insisted that the argument that this situation denied Plessy’s rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendment was not persuasive:
In speaking for the court’s decision that Ferguson’s judgment did not violate the 14th Amendment, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Charles Fenner cited precedents from two Northern states commonly associated with abolitionism. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled as early as 1849 that segregated schools were constitutional. In answering the charge that segregation perpetuated race prejudice, the Massachusetts court stated: “This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law and cannot be changed by law.” Similarly, in commenting on a Pennsylvania law mandating separate railcars for different races the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated: “To assert separateness is not to declare inferiority … It is simply to say that following the order of Divine Providence, human authority ought not to compel these widely separated races to intermix.” [ibid]
Undaunted, Plessy and his sponsors pushed the case all the way to Washington, DC, and the Supreme Court agreed to consider it in 1896. The crushing blow from the Supreme Court’s decision in the matter didn’t just crush Plessy’s hopes…it set a precedent for an astonishing “loophole” that was available from then on for any state to make and enforce Jim Crow laws and customs.
In the seven-to-one decision handed down on May 18, 1896 … the Court rejected Plessy’s arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the decision rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.
When summarizing, Justice Brown declared, “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” Justice Brown also cited a Boston case upholding segregated schools. [ibid]
The bottom line of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was this: Any sort of segregation in public accommodations and facilities such as railroads, restrooms, waiting rooms…and, eventually, schools and more…was considered perfectly acceptable under the Constitution as long as those provided for blacks were “separate but equal.”
While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars [in the Louisiana case], this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets, cafés, and public schools, where the facilities designated for blacks were consistently of lesser quality than those for whites. [ibid]
It was also likely untrue for many railroads at the time, and on into the future, across the South.
In the corner of a chilly McCreary County railway shop sits a piece of American history that millions from around the world will tour: a restored Southern Railways “Jim Crow” car with separate sections for black and white passengers.
The 80-foot car includes separate restrooms for its segregated passengers; 22 of each race could ride, although white passengers got a tad more legroom between seats. The restrooms for blacks were hardly big enough to turn around in, while the restrooms for whites included lounges with sofas and, in the men’s room, for cigar-smoking and spittoons. [The “colored” section had no overhead compartments for luggage, either. Patrons had to just cram their suitcases around their legs—or on their lap.]
The car probably was used from 1940 to 1960. Southern Railways operated in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. [This car was being restored to become a featured exhibit at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American history and Culture in Washington DC.] [Source]
As the decades went by after the Plessy ruling, it became painfully more and more obvious that the notion of “separate but equal” was mostly, most of the time, what one might call a “legal fiction.” There were, for example, these school photos taken in Clarendon SC during the 1949-50 school year. That year, the school board spent $179 on each white student, $43 on each black student.
Paxville school for white children
Paxville School for colored children
Or these, of another pair of South Carolina schools from that period.
Or these from 1954 in Prince Edward County, Virginia…
Or this unnamed pair of typical classrooms from that era…
And the fiction most certainly extended to most other “facilities” available to blacks.
Not only were many if not most alternate “colored” facilities inferior rather than equal, all too often there were no alternates. Yes, even in the case of hospitals:
On November 7, 1931, Dean Juliette Derricotte of Fisk University in Nashville [a segregated black university] was driving three students to her parents’ home in Atlanta when a Model T driven by an older white man suddenly swerved and struck Ms. Derricotte’s car, overturning it into a ditch. The white driver stopped to yell at the black occupants of Ms. Derricotte’s car for damaging his own vehicle, then left the scene. Nearby Hamilton Memorial Hospital in Dalton, Georgia, did not admit African American patients, so Ms. Derricotte and the three students were treated by a white doctor at his office in Dalton and then taken to the home of an African American woman to recuperate – though Ms. Derricotte and one of the students, Nina Johnson, were critically injured.
Six hours after the accident, one of the less seriously injured students was able to reach a Chattanooga hospital by phone, and arrangements were made to transport Ms. Derricotte and Ms. Johnson the 35 miles to that facility. However, it was too late: Ms. Derricotte died on her way to the hospital, at age 34, and Ms. Johnson died the next day.
The Committee on Interracial Cooperation opened an investigation into the incident, and Walter White, secretary of the New York-based NAACP, traveled south in December 1931 to learn more. He later concluded, “The barbarity of race segregation in the South is shown in all its brutal ugliness by the willingness to let cultured, respected, and leading colored women die for lack of hospital facilities which are available to any white person no matter how low in social scale.” [Source]
Yes, this situation… along with no doubt thousands of more tragedies over the years…can be traced back to that separate-but-(not)-equal fiction that became officially endorsed by the Supreme Court of the USA in the Plessy case of 1896.
Fast forward 54 years from Plessy to 1950:
In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children.
The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. The Topeka Board of Education operated separate elementary schools under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in 12 communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka NAACP.
..The named plaintiff [used in the formal name of the case], Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American… Brown’s daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks [and cross a railroad track] to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks from her house.
As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools.
Linda Brown (Thompson) later recalled the experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:
“… well. like I say, we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out … to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn’t understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.” [Source]
The case “Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas” was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. The lawyers, and the National Chapter of the NAACP, also felt that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. [The nine other parents who signed on as part of the suit were mothers.] [Source]
The complainants lost the case in the District Court in Kansas. An appeal was prepared, and combined with four other similar cases, from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington DC. And then all five were presented under the title “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka KS” to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case. Arguments were heard before the Court in 1952 (during the final year of the Truman administration) and 1953 (the first year of the Eisenhower Administration). At one point the complainants acquired an unusual ally:
In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief in the case. The brief was unusual in its heavy emphasis on foreign-policy considerations of the Truman administration in a case ostensibly about domestic issues. Of the seven pages covering “the interest of the United States,” five focused on the way school segregation hurt the United States in the Cold War competition for the friendship and allegiance of non-white peoples in countries then gaining independence from colonial rule. Attorney General James P. McGranery noted that…
“The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”
The brief also quoted a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson lamenting that…
“The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination in this country.
British barrister and parliamentarian Anthony Lester has written that “Although the Court’s opinion in Brown made no reference to these considerations of foreign policy, there is no doubt that they significantly influenced the decision.” [Source]
Justice Fred Vinson, named as Chief Justice by Harry Truman in 1946, died in September 1953. Eisenhower promptly promoted Justice Earl Warren to the position, making it thereafter, until Warren retired in 1969, the Warren Court.
After all the arguments were presented by both sides in the case, the members of the Court began deliberations. And early in 1954…
Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of Negroes. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion.
Although most justices were immediately convinced, Warren spent some time after this famous speech convincing everyone to sign onto the opinion. Justices Jackson and Reed finally decided to drop their dissent. The final decision was unanimous. Warren drafted the basic opinion and kept circulating and revising it until he had an opinion endorsed by all the members of the Court. [ibid]
In summary, on May 17, 1954, the Court issued a unanimous opinion, stating in part…
[D]oes segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. …
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system. …
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
This is what made Brown v. Board a “landmark case” in school desegregation: the decision that “separate” by itself was unconstitutional.
Remember that Warren made every effort to assure the decision was “unanimous” to avoid “massive resistance” by Southerners. Although that unanimity may have given the decision more credibility in the eyes of some Americans, it most assuredly didn’t head off that Massive Resistance.
“If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that, in time, the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”
Senator Harry Flood Byrd, 1954
Yes, the massive resistance began immediately.
Massive resistance was a strategy declared by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia along with his brother-in-law as the leader in the Virginia General Assembly, Democrat Delegate James M. Thomson of Alexandria, to unite white politicians and leaders in Virginia in a campaign of new state laws and policies to prevent public school desegregation, particularly after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Many schools, and even an entire school system, were shut down in 1958 and 1959 in attempts to block integration… [Source]
By 1956, Senator Byrd had created a coalition of nearly 100 Southern politicians to sign on to his “Southern Manifesto” an agreement to resist the implementation of Brown.
On February 25, 1956, Senator Byrd issued the call for “Massive Resistance” — a collection of laws passed in response to the Brown decision that aggressively tried to forestall and prevent school integration. For instance, the Massive Resistance doctrine included a law that punished any public school that integrated by eliminating its state funds and eventually closing the school.
In addition to legal and legislative resistance, the white population of the southern United States mobilized en masse to nullify the Supreme Court’s decree. In states across the South, whites set up private academies to educate their children, at first using public funds to support the attendance of their children in these segregated facilities, until the use of public funds was successfully challenged in court. In other instances, segregationists tried to intimidate black families by threats of violence and economic reprisals against plaintiffs in local cases. [Source]
And it went downhill from there, with the Massive Resisters battling all the way through the years of the Civil Rights movement.
And Earl Warren? He became the prime scapegoat of it all in the minds of most Southerners (and no doubt many pro-segregation Northerners as well.)
I remember those billboards from the years of my childhood in the 50s. They were all over the country, not just in the South. You can also find photos of vintage buttons and posters online now with the same message.
I had no clue at the time (I was 7 years old when the Brown v Board opinion was issued) who Earl Warren was, what impeach meant, and why whoever put up the billboards wanted to do it to him. But the anger toward him was obvious. And it only increased in the coming years.
It was bad enough in these folks’ mind that Earl Warren and his court had insisted that they allow Negroes into their schools.
Their anger at Warren peaked again in the early 1960s after they became convinced that same Court with the same Chief Justice had kicked God out of their schools!
We will consider more details about that alleged Biggest Coup in History—and what it has to do with Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows, in the next blog entry: