James Cobb wrote in The New Republic online yesterday that this may be a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement. He tries to unwind the knot surrounding the confluence of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision last year, the passing of Rosa Parks and the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
A week after Rosa Parks died, President Bush nominated conservative judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, further stoking an already heated debate about the Court’s potential impact on the social and political battles of our own time. In recent years, many liberals, frustrated with the rightward tilt of both the high Court and the courts in general, have despaired of looking to the judiciary as either a vehicle or guardian of progressive reform. Instead, they emphasize grassroots organizational strategies aimed at generating the democratic pressures needed to promote their goals and preserve their gains. Such an approach is congruent with a reading of the Civil Rights movement that plays up the role of activists like Rosa Parks and plays down the role of Brown and other judicial mandates. Yet the key to a fuller historical understanding of the civil rights struggle lies not in what Parks and the Court accomplished separately–but rather in what each achieved with the support of the other.
The ultimate lesson of Brown for our own time, or any other, is that while grassroots activism is frequently necessary to spur social advancement, the courts are often necessary too. Tushnet’s proposal for moving away from judicial review implies considerable confidence in Congress. However, that body’s general indifference toward racial injustice from the end of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights movement garnered widespread popular support nearly a century later hardly constitutes an inspiring record of responsiveness to the needs of those who lack political clout and the resources and expertise to lobby effectively on their own behalf. On what basis, historical or contemporary, should we put all our faith in the legislative process to safeguard the interests and safety of the homeless, the incarcerated, and the detained? For that matter, what reason have any of us to grant such leeway to the folks who tossed our fundamental civil protections out the window by rolling over, not once but twice, for the Patriot Act?
James Cobb is the author of Away Down South: A History Of Southern Identity. Earlier this week, Cobb was quoted in an AP article saying that “The things now we would base Southern distinctiveness on are so ethereal” and the South has become “sort of like a lifestyle, rather than an identity.”