Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dred Scott Remembered

In today's Boston Globe, Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, and Johanna Wald, Director of Strategic Planning at the Institute, write movingly about the United States Supreme Court's infamous 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Chief Justice Roger Taney held for the majority that African-Americans "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Ogletree and Wald point out that Dred Scott was not "universally repudiated," but "did stun and anger many people," mobilized the abolitionist movement, and probably hastened the coming of the Civil War.

Since Dred Scott, a number of cases and federal statutes have affirmed "the nation's commitment to basic rights for all." But the march of progress has not been steady. Ogletree and Wald describe a "pattern more accurately described as an ebb and flow than a steady current drifting toward full equality. No sooner do we grant rights and privileges to certain groups than we begin the process of revoking and curbing them." They discuss problems with voting rights, "separate but equal" schools, and basic rights afforded to undocumented immigrants.

Sadly, Ogletree and Wald conclude, the "questions at the heart of the Dred Scott case--about citizenship, belonging, and participation--remain unresolved." They challenge us to "reawaken the America that embraces change, diversity, and progress." This is a compelling editorial, and should spark much debate.

Tomorrow and Saturday, the Institute for Race & Justice is sponsoring a program entitled "150th Anniversary of Dred Scott v. Sandford: Race, Citizenship & Justice," to be held at Harvard Law School. According to the press release, this national conference "will examine Dred Scott, its historical significance, and current application to unique issues of law, particularly those pertaining to race and civil rights." The list of confirmed participants is impressive, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the United States Supreme Court, ten federal judges, and a number of other luminaries. A live webcast is available from the link to the program above.


Betsy McKenzie said...

The Dred Scott case arose in St. Louis, and the old courthouse can still be toured. Washington University in St. Louis, appropriately, has a web archive about the Dred Scott case

Marie S. Newman said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Betsy. I am very familiar with the old courthouse; it sits on land given by one of my ancestors for that purpose, and I very much enjoyed touring the building several years ago.

Betsy McKenzie said...

That is such a cool personal connection, Marie! I had no idea you had St. Louis connections.

Marie S. Newman said...

Yes, I am descended from the founder.