The civil rights movement occurred 50 years ago, realizing of course that many events, spread over years, were part of that profound change in the American way of life.
It all began in the spring of 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that public schools in this country could not enroll students segregated on the basis of race. This decision was the first of a series that made American law color blind and led to the social condition that now we take for granted.
Segregation by race had been fully legal in this country after 1894 when the Supreme Court of that day legalized racial separation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Plessy was the legal keystone of racial segregation in this country.
Plaintiffs in the Brown case went before the 1954 court knowing well that, everything else set aside, they were asking that the court reverse an earlier ruling. This rarely happens in this country.
At the time, the new chief justice was Earl Warren, who for a number of years had been the popular Republican governor of California and the 1948 Republican candidate for vice president. He had been a lawyer and California’s attorney general, it is true, but no one regarded him as a great legal mind, to say the least. He had never been a judge. At the Republican convention in 1952 he had shifted California’s delegates to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower at a crucial moment in the nomination process. Being named chief justice was Warren’s reward.
Warren was not a bigot, but he had supported the virtual incarceration of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II. So he was no thundering champion for equality among the races, either.
His biography reports that, unaccustomed to the workings of the court, and not the best student of the law, he decided to take a weekend off, get away from Washington, and study the Brown case. He chose to go into the rural countryside outside Washington.
As chief justice, he had a Cadillac with a chauffeur provided by the government. The chauffeur was African-American. When they left the District of Columbia, Warren saw segregation for what it was. Because of racial segregation laws or policies, the chauffeur could eat in no restaurant, use no restroom and stay in no hotel patronized by Warren. Warren knew his chauffeur was a decent man and was disgusted. The system of segregation was inhuman and an abomination. It had to go, the sooner the better: Over-rule Plessy.
The chief justice returned to Washington determined to dismantle the laws segregating Americans along racial lines. His political skills helped him more than knowledge of the law to persuade the other justices. The rest is history.
It is not impossible that some day the Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion. After all, it got rid of Plessy.
Somehow, justices, and Americans overall, must come to realize what abortion is. It destroys an innocent human life. That the life is unborn is beside the point. It is a human life. We must hope that Americans, and not just judges, will see things clearly, like that trip to rural Virginia once enabled the chief justice of the United States to see things clearly.
This gives you and me and all who treasure human life our marching orders. We must speak out for the majesty of lives even if unborn. Everything else is secondary: the right to choose, the circumstances under which conception occurred, the medical state of the unborn child, prospects for the unborn child after birth. Life is paramount. Make everything accommodate this right.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.