Pages x-xi


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SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                           Pages x-xi






From the start, the United States aspired to far more than its own survival. And from the start, its people have assigned themselves a nobler destiny, justified by a higher moral standing, than impartial scrutiny might confirm. Success added high luster to their character, and when Americans looked into the mirror, they admired with uncommon keenness what they saw.

Only lately, on the eve of the nation’s bicentennial of independence, has the dazzle of America’s achievement dimmed enough for her people to sense the need to distinguish their conceits from a set of humbling truths. Not all progress, Americans have started to see, can be measured in numbers. Not all wars can be won, and fewer still are worth the spilling of blood and surplus energies. Not all problems can be engineered out of existence without giving rise to yet more severe ones. The skies will not fall if next year’s profits do not exceed this year’s level. And the world is nobody’s oyster forever; he who would hoard its pearls may wind up choking on them.

Material values in themselves, in short, can neither explain nor sustain the American achievement: the nation must exploit its inner resources as well if it is to linger long at the center of the global stage. This is a book about the resurrection of those inner resources.

Of the ideals that animated the American nation at its beginning, none was more radiant or honored than the inherent equality of mankind. There was dignity in all human flesh, Americans proclaimed, and all must have their chance to strive and to excel. All men were to be protected alike from the threat of rapacious neighbors and from the prying or coercive state. If it is a sin to aspire to conduct of a higher order than one may at the moment be capable of, then Americans surely sinned in professing that all men are created equal – and then acting otherwise. Nor did time close the gap between that profession and the widespread practice of racism in the land. The nation prospered mightily nonetheless, and few were willing to raise their voices and suggest that what might once have been forgiven as the excesses of a buoyant national youth had widened into systematic and undiminishing cruelty.






SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                           Pages x-xi



Some protested, to be sure. But no political leader risked all of his power and no sector of the nation’s governmental apparatus was fully applied against this grave injustice – until the Supreme Court of the United States took that step. There was irony in this because the nine Justices, as has often been said, constitute the least democratic branch of the national government. Yet this, most likely, was one reason why the Court felt free to act: it is not compelled to nourish the collective biases of the electorate; it may act to curb those unsavory attitudes by the direct expedient of declaring them to be intolerable among a civilized people.

It is to these insulated nine men, then, that the nation has increasingly brought its most vexing social and political problems. They come in the guise of private disputes between only the litigating parties, but everybody understands that this is a legal fiction and merely a convenient political device. American society thus reduces its most troubling controversies to the scope – and translates them into the language – of a lawsuit. In no other way has the nation contrived to frame these problems for a definitive judgment that applies to a vast land, a varied people, a whole age.

What follows is a history of one such lawsuit (or, to be more technically accurate, five cases raising the same question and consolidated under a single title). Yet this book has not been conceived as a study of law and its permutations. It has been designed to suggest how law and men interact, how social forces of the past collide with those of the present, and how the men selected as America’s ultimate arbiters of justice have chosen to define that quality with widely varying regard for the emotional content of life itself.

This is a long book because of the nature and subject of the lawsuit with which it deals. Probably no case ever to come before the nation’s highest tribunal affected more directly the minds, hearts, and daily lives of so many Americans. Already, just two decades later, scholars have assigned the cases known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka a high place in the literature of liberty. The decision marked the turning point in America’s willingness to face the consequences of centuries of racial discrimination, a practice tracing back nearly to the first settlement of the New World. The process of ridding the nation of its most inhumane habit cannot be properly presented by dwelling on only the climactic moments of that effort.

Many unheralded people persevering in widespread communities over long, hard decades contributed to what the Supreme Court decided on the seventeenth day of May 1954. This is, in large part, their story. In a larger sense, it is a chapter in the biography of a nation that has begun to understand that history may measure its ultimate worth not by the lilt of its slogans or the might of its arsenals or its troyweights of gold, but by how evenhandedly it has dealt with all of its citizens and how consistently it has denied dignity to none.




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