The Long Fight for Civil Rights Book Studies Government's Role

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Black Resistance, White Law A History of Constitutional Racism In America By Mary Frances Berry 319 pages, Penguin, $22.95

`WHITE OPPRESSION and black resistance have been a part of the American scene since the colonial period." This introduction to the final chapter of Professor Mary Berry's latest book contains the thesis of "Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America."

The book addresses what Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor has referred to as "the sorry history of public and private discrimination in this country." Berry explains how the American legal system has been used to suppress the rights of African-Americans from the colonial period to the present. Although the topic would appear to be too broad to cover adequately in a single volume, Berry succeeds in doing so in a compelling and well-documented discussion.

The initial chapters discuss the legal status of African slaves during the colonial period. Slaves were chattel, the property of owners who were vested with unfettered legal dominion over their possessions. This was, however, an uneasy arrangement. In states where slavery was practiced, there was an ever-present threat of violent rebellion. These fears were exacerbated by uprisings led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. The slave states reacted by demanding federal military support to guard against the danger of bloody uprisings.

From the 1800s to the Civil War, abolitionists engaged in a heated debate with supporters of slavery. One of the many violent confrontations took place near St. Louis and resulted in the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, a publisher who established an abolitionist press in Alton, Ill., in 1837. The legal debate concerning the rights of slaves culminated in the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, which held that slaves had no rights that whites were bound to respect. This pronouncement, rather than resolving conflicts, led directly to the Civil War. The War ended the slavery question but the legal status of African-Americans remained uncertain.

During the Reconstruction period, blacks in the South participated in the political process, electing hundreds of representatives to state and local legislatures. After the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy. The status of African-Americans declined dramatically as the era of white supremacy was imposed by means of murders, lynchings and other acts of violence. Federal support for the rights of African- Americans also declined. In The Civil Rights Cases, decided in 1883, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional various provisions of the Reconstruction Civil Rights Act. The subordinate status of blacks was sealed in 1896, when the Supreme Court endorsed state-sponsored segregation in Plessy vs. …