"The decision tortured the Constitution — the South will torture the decision.”
These are the hostile words of southerner John Temple Graves in reference to Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that ended de facto school segregation in the United States.
The South’s resistance to the decision — which lasted for decades — was characterized by hostile rhetoric, legal maneuvering, violence and outright defiance of the Supreme Court.
After the decision, “In Congress the court was subjected to assaults of explosive violence,” writes historian C. Vann Woodward in “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” from which the Graves quotation is also pulled. “The House passed bills restricting the court’s powers, and the Senate came within eight votes of nullifying several Supreme Court decisions.”
“The Strange Career of Jim Crow” is a conspicuous read in early April 2012, as the Supreme Court faces a vote that 75 percent of Americans, according to a March 2012 Bloomberg poll, believe will be decided along political lines. But the court is not the only political actor in this drama. President Obama has been taken to task over the past week for slyly suggesting the Supreme Court “exercise judicial restraint” and uphold the Affordable Care Act.
“Imagine if President Eisenhower before Brown v. Board of Education had heckled, ‘those unelected judges better not be dreaming up ways to undo the decisions of elected school boards around the country on how to run their schools,’” wrote an indignant Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post in an article highly critical of the president’s statements last Tuesday. “If the president does not defend the rule of law and urge civil debate and acceptance of the court’s decisions, he is opening a Pandora’s box.”
Yet President Eisenhower did heckle, albeit quietly, and Brown v. Board was his target. “I don’t believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions,” he repeated throughout the era. And while the aforementioned Congressional assault on the court raged, Eisenhower calmly “refused to deny a report that he privately deplored the Brown decision and said that integration should proceed more slowly.”
The resistance to desegregation, as with the resistance to the Affordable Care Act, was cloaked and shrouded in the impartiality of the law, defended through the discernment of its rightful interpreters (whomever they may be), and bolstered by a dutiful and unwavering faithfulness to the Constitution.