It’s been 158 years since the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision ruled that African-Americans were not American citizens and had no rights. But a groundbreaking federal judge believes the current Roberts Court is the worst court the nation has seen in the area of civil rights since the Dred Scott decision was handed down.
U.W. Clemon, who became Alabama’s first Black federal judge when he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, presented his withering analysis of the current Supreme Court during an appearance on Democracy Now.
“It was Charles Evans Hughes who once said that the Constitution means at any given point in time only what five members of the Supreme Court say that it means,” Clemon, 71, told host Amy Goodman while attending ceremonies in Selma, Alabama, over the weekend. “And we have seen, in the last quarter-century, a Supreme Court as reactionary as the Taney Court which decided the Dred Scott decision. This court today is as amorous of states’ rights, which we thought we had fought a great Civil War over, thought we had settled that issue —but this Supreme Court has resurrected states’ rights, and it’s now a constitutional principle.”
By turning back the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby ruling, Clemon said, the court has allowed states to usher in the kind of voting restrictions that he fought against 50 years ago in Alabama. Clemon knows of what he speaks: He confronted the infamous Sheriff Bull Connor over Birmingham’s segregation laws when he was still a student at Miles College in 1962, marched with activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, and personally desegregated the Birmingham Public Library.
It’s a legacy that gives him a clear historical picture of what’s going on today in America. Taking a long view of American history, Clemon goes all the way back to the 19th century to find a court as racially regressive as the one presided over by John Roberts.
Clemon has seen some race wars during his time in the South: As a civil rights lawyer in Alabama, he sued Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1969 to desegregate the University of Alabama’s football team, and he brought employment discrimination cases against some of the largest employers in Alabama.
Asked by Goodman whether he would call today’s court a “Jim Crow court,” Clemon didn’t back down.
“Well, I would say that this Supreme Court is — yes, it’s a flamethrower,” he said. “And it is, in my judgment, the worst Supreme Court in terms of civil rights since, as I said, 1857, the decision that caused the Civil War.”
Clemon currently practices law in Birmingham, after retiring from the judiciary in January 2009.
Ted Shaw, the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and currently a professor of the University of North Carolina Law School as well as director of the school’s Center for Civil Rights, told Democracy Now that many Americans are afraid of the country’s changing demographics.
“It’s causing them to literally act in ways that are mad,” Shaw said. “I don’t mean angry mad; I mean like insane mad. And it’s infected our politics. And race is very much at the center of a lot of these issues. They’re afraid of not being in the majority anymore, even though they’ll still have disproportionate power. So, you know, I think we’re in a dangerous time and a dangerous place. The Voting Rights Act is still important, the right to vote sacred. This is political disempowerment that’s followed from Shelby County, or potential political disempowerment. So, the struggle continues. It may change in some ways, but it continues.”