John G Bell


Fall '03 - Gomez & Unsel

Week 8 – Response Paper

An Evil Eye and an Unequal Hand”: Constitutional Abomination, Lynching & Jim Crow

A. Synopsis

The “struggle to preserve the Union strengthened nationalist sentiment” [Goldman 29] while at the same time the civil rights movements increased in power and influence. Leading up to and following the Civil War, the tension between the ideas of a strong national government and states' rights mirrored the struggle over the role of central government at the time the Constitution was framed. The steady increase in power over the various states was bitterly contested and hard fought, but the equilibrium continued to weigh toward the Federalist ideal of a national government. During this same period, the Bill of Rights and amendments were contested and, while there were setbacks, the balance of judicial rule showed a steadily increasing importance to the additional language demanded by the Anti-Federalists. Somewhat ironically, these selected ideals from both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists supported and balanced each other.

B. Response

The suppression of civil and political rights of the African Americans in the South by the Whites may seem to require the suspension of the civil rights of the Whites to preserve the rights of others. However, this is rather a case where social rights interfere with other rights so thus must be curtailed to preserve law and order. [Thomas 12-13] The real conclusion is that social rights must not be allowed to interfere with civil or political rights. The imperative is that conflicts between rights be settled by statutory hierarchy or by legal precedent, not by vigilante action. (There's a distinction between vigilante action and civil disobedience or protests in the use of violence by the former.) The ideal is that rights be provide equally under the law in equitable accord to the notion of inherent and unalienable rights contained in the Declaration of Independence. The ideal, imperative and conclusion must all be in effect, or dissent is necessary to raise the issue of insufficient application and protection of rights for all citizens.

If a social right is important enough to protect by law as a civil right, then it must still be important when it counts and would actually be exercised. The right to free speech does not provide for the activity of blocking another citizen's civil or political rights. It may be rude to shout and harangue, but it does not, barring what's come to be known as hate speech, suppress the civil or political rights of other citizens.

It may be essentially true that “[i]n any civilized society the most important task is achieving a proper balance between freedom and order.” [Rehnquist p222] This statement seems to assume that there is merely a freedom that is only available in the unfettered, ungoverned state of nature. However, this creates a false dilemma between order and freedom. There are social, civil and political rights to freedom which are protective kinds of order, provided by society and government in the United States. There is a difference between arbitrary exercise of power and the arbitration of rights between citizens. To protect citizens from one another is to protect the freedom of each. It is also important to realize that these protective kinds of order also protect the citizens from the government and visa versa. There are conflicts to be sure, but the protection of these rights is in fact a maintenance of order through protected freedom.

C. Questions

What is going on in that image on the cover of Plessy? That image is repeated inside and is captioned “Negro expulsion from railway car, Philadelphia.” In talking to some other classmates they seem to think that the look on the white woman's face is a sneer, but it's the doe eyes and tilted head that seriously mimic the sexually suggestive poses used in advertising and suggest to me there's something additional here. Notice the way that the white male is given facial contortions, from yelling to be sure, but he's also the only one. The others in this image are more realistically drawn and all seem, to me, relatively undisturbed by the rancor and invective of the white male. For example, take your hand and cover the white male and re-examine the picture for what it seems to suggest then.