It took LaToysha Brown 13 years to realize how little interaction she had with white peers in her Mississippi Delta town: not at church, not at school, not at anywhere.
The realization dawned when she was in the seventh grade, studying the civil rights movement at an after-school program called the Sunflower County Freedom Project. It didn’t bother her at first. By high school, however, Brown had started to wonder if separate could ever be equal. She attended a nearly all-black high school with dangerous sinkholes in the courtyard, spotty Internet access in the classrooms, and a shortage of textbooks all around. Brown had never been inside Indianola Academy, the private school most of the town’s white teenagers attend. But she sensed that the students there had books they could take home and walkways free of sinkholes.
“The schools would achieve so much more if they would combine,” said Brown, now age 17 and a junior.
But more than four decades after they were established, “segregation academies” in Mississippi towns like Indianola continue to define nearly every aspect of community life. Hundreds of these schools opened across the country in the 20 years after the Brown v. Board decision, particularly in southern states like Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Virgina. While an unknown number endure outside of Mississippi, the Delta remains their strongest bastion.
A Hechinger Report analysis of private school demographics (using data compiled on the National Center for Education Statistics website) found that more than 35 such academies survive in Mississippi, many of them in rural Delta communities like Indianola. Each of the schools was founded between 1964 and 1972 in response to anticipated or actual desegregation orders, and all of them enroll fewer than two percent black students. (The number of Mississippi “segregation academies” swells well above 35 if schools where the black enrollment is between three and 10 percent are counted.) At some of them — including Benton Academy near Yazoo City and Carroll Academy near Greenwood — not a single black student attended in 2010, according to the most recent data. Others, like Indianola Academy, have a small amount of diversity.
“These schools were started to keep white children away from blacks,” said Wade Overstreet, a Mississippi native and the program coordinator at the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools. “They’ve done an amazing job of it.”
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear two cases challenging state and federal laws which prevent the legal union between same-sex couples.
But it’s not the only significant civil rights case the Court has decided to take up this term.
Last month, the Supreme Court said it will consider the constitutionality of a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the hallmark legislation from the Civil Rights era that has come under increased challenge.
The cornerstone provision is known as Section 5, which holds some states accountable to get federal clearance before making any changes to their voting laws.
Many think the Court’s decision to hear the case, announced just three days after the election, spells doom for the cornerstone provision. But whatever the justices’ decision, the case may end up, as the influential SCOTUSBlog put it, “as one of the most significant rulings of the current Term.”
Oral arguments in the case, Shelby County v. Holder, are set for next year, with a decision expected by June. Let’s take a step back and see why this case is so consequential:
What’s Section 5 again?
As we’ve explained before, Section 5 requires nine mostly Southern states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alaska, Virginia, Texas and Arizona — and areas of seven others to preclear any change to a voting law or procedure with the federal government.
This review is conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice or a panel of federal judges on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. If a voting change hasn’t been submitted for review, the change can be legally unenforceable.
Section 5, which was enacted by the original Voting Rights Act, was meant to address the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans by state lawmakers in the South since the end of Reconstruction.
Under the provision, covered jurisdictions must prove that any proposed voting change doesn’t have a discriminatory purpose or effect or would diminish minorities’ ability to elect a favored candidate.
With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”
That was the way it was interpreted by some of those who read it at the time as well. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the strength of the Declaration of Independence, weaving Jefferson’s language into the state constitution of 1780. The meaning of “all men” sounded equally clear, and so disturbing to the authors of the constitutions of six Southern states that they emended Jefferson’s wording. “All freemen,” they wrote in their founding documents, “are equal.” The authors of those state constitutions knew what Jefferson meant, and could not accept it. The Continental Congress ultimately struck the passage because South Carolina and Georgia, crying out for more slaves, would not abide shutting down the market.
“One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.
The court has already announced that it will hear a challenge to affirmative action in higher education. In that case, a white student rejected by the University of Texas is arguing that the school doesn’t need to choose students based on racial preferences because it already achieves diversity by guaranteeing admission to state residents in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
Affirmative action was upheld nine years ago, but the composition of the court has changed since then. Five members are now openly skeptical of racial preferences. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it in a 2007 case involving integration at the K-12 level: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The justices could also deal a blow to minorities if they take up a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act brought by Shelby County, Ala. Officials there say a provision in that law requiring jurisdictions in 16 mostly southern states to get federal clearance before changing their voting rules—so as not to disenfranchise blacks and other minorities—unfairly targets jurisdictions for racial crimes of the past.
What is surprising, however, is how deep into Patriot territory the LOS has apparently lurched. Amidst the usual condemnations of Abraham Lincoln and talk of using states’ rights to oppose the federal government, Hill declared, “We can also use our counties as bulwarks against the criminal class. The County Sheriff is the principal peace officer in his jurisdiction. As such, he can lawfully tell the Feds to ‘Go to Hell’ and stay out of his territory. He also can deputize as many of the county’s citizens as he wishes and have them armed to the teeth. No one can over-rule him within his boundaries. Make sure your current Sheriff knows his authority and to whom he answers (you and your neighbors). If he is unwilling to use his authority for the good of the people of his jurisdiction, replace him at the first opportunity.”
These ideas come straight out of the playbook of the Posse Comitatus, a racist, anti-Semitic group that raged through the Midwest in the late 1970s and 1980s. A precursor to the modern “sovereign citizens” movement, the Posse Comitatus believed that sheriffs were the only legal law enforcers in the country.
It makes sense that Posse Comitatus and sovereign citizen ideology would appeal to the LOS. Most sovereigns base their belief they are not bound by most laws on the idea that they are “organic citizens” whose rights are God-given, as opposed to “14th Amendment citizens,” whose rights derive solely from the U.S. Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the LOS despises the 14th Amendment (which expanded the concept of citizenship to include anyone born in the United States, including blacks), calling it the most “nefarious consequence of the Reconstruction” and claiming that its ratification was illegal. (In fact, the ratification of the 14th Amendment did involve strong-arm tactics. After the Civil War, Southern states were granted re-entry into the Union only on the condition that they ratify it. Of course, America at the time had just fought the bloodiest war in her history over the issue of slavery, and extending citizenship to newly freed slaves was a vital component of Reconstruction.) Sovereign ideology allows whites to reject the 14th Amendment and proclaim themselves the true Americans, free from what they perceive as an overweening and downright criminal federal government. For the racist LOS, it would be a way to simultaneously affirm whites’ superiority over blacks and reject the portions of the Constitution they despise.
The LOS has not fully adopted sovereign citizen ideas - yet. But in mid-March, the group’s Georgia chapter will hold a symposium on “The 14th Amendment and it [sic] Legal Transformation,” exploring such topics as citizenship and “[h]ow the 14th amendment transformed our political status and system of law.” One of the speakers will be Roger Sayles - presumably, the same Roger Sayles who declared himself a sovereign citizen in 1992 and believes that the 14th Amendment applies to “the citizenship of the Negro,” not whites. Another presenter will be Pat Shannan, a conspiracy theorist who in a recent column for the anti-Semitic American Free Press praised the Montana Freeman, a heavily armed antigovernment group that in 1996 engaged in the longest police-standoff siege in U.S. history, for embodying “true Americanism.”
LAST month Barack Obama, following his approval ratings, headed south. He took a three-day bus tour through Virginia and North Carolina, both of which he had won in 2008, reversing a decades-long erosion of Democratic support in the South. He met soldiers, students and teachers. Virginia’s Democratic politicians, however, stayed away. Tim Kaine, a former governor now running for the Senate, pleaded a full schedule elsewhere. Others were less kind. Phillip Puckett, a Democratic state senator, declared, “I don’t plan to support President Obama for re-election.” Churlish, perhaps, but it worked: on Tuesday Mr Puckett won his own re-election battle.
Elections this week across three southern states produced oddly mixed results. The Republicans’ steady march through the state capitols and governor’s mansions of Dixie continued in Mississippi, where they appear to have captured the state’s House of Representatives from the Democrats for the first time since the aftermath of the civil war. Their candidate for governor, Phil Bryant, trounced Democrat Johnny DuPree (although voters spurned a proposal backed by both men, to confer “personhood” on the unborn). Yet in Kentucky Steve Beshear, the Democratic incumbent, romped home by an equally wide margin. Democrats riding on his coat-tails swept four of the five other statewide races. Virginia, meanwhile, saw only modest gains for Republicans, with control of the state Senate, previously in Democratic hands, hanging on a wafer-thin Republican victory headed for a recount.
All this is of great interest to followers of national politics. Given Mr Obama’s fraying support in much of the Midwest, he will struggle to keep his job next year unless he can win at least one of the three southern states he carried in 2008: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Strategists from both parties are therefore poring over this week’s muddled results in an effort to decipher whether and under what circumstances Democrats can still prevail in the battlegrounds of the South.
There is little question that the Republicans remain the party to beat in most of the region. The drubbing that they delivered to Democrats in state elections in Louisiana last month is typical. Assuming Republicans have indeed taken Virginia’s Senate and Mississippi’s House, they will control every legislature in the South save in the fringe states of Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia.
The Democrats’ decline has been decades in the making. The presidential vote was the first to go, with the five deep southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) plumping for Barry Goldwater in 1964 in spite of the fact that their congressional delegations were Democrats almost to a man. The wave accelerated in the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan captured the white, working-class voters who had kept conservative southern “yellow-dog” Democrats in office. In 2000 Al Gore, despite being a southerner himself, failed to win any southern states. There are now just two Democrats in statewide office in the deep South: Mary Landrieu, a senator from Louisiana, and Jim Hood, the attorney-general of Mississippi.