Idea of Racial Inferiority and the Law Author Reveals New Aspects of Civil Rights History

Article excerpt


Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process

By A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. 303 pages, Oxford University Press, $30 ***** `SHADES OF FREEDOM" shows just how deeply the presumption of racial inferiority is embedded into the foundation of the American legal system. The author explains that the goal of the book is to "highlight significant legal issues that exemplify the precept of racial inferiority." "Shades of Freedom" is the second volume in a series that began in 1978 with the publication of "In the Matter of Color." The first volume chronicled the development of laws requiring racial subordination beginning in 1619, when the first slaves were imported to America, and continuing up to the colonial era. "Shades of Freedom" develops the theme that was introduced in the first book and carries it forward into the 20th century. Readers acquainted with the history of slavery and racial subordination will be familiar with many events that are examined. Yet, there is much here that is new. The most significant features include the writer's expert legal analysis and his keen insight into the events that are described. The author, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His academic appointment follows a distinguished career as a circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. During his many years on the bench, Higginbotham wrote dozens of articles that were published in scholarly journals. He was a frequent speaker on the lecture circuit and he served as visiting professor at a number of distinguished institutions. After years of delving into historical archives, the author has found materials that reveal a new dimension of civil rights history. For example, in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, the Supreme Court denied a slave's petition for freedom and declared that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect. This infamous decision, which was one of the sparks that ignited the Civil War, was not an aberration. It accurately reflected the legal status of African-Americans under slavery. To buttress this conclusion, Higginbotham relies on less well-known cases such as the State of Missouri vs. Celia. This case involved a slave who was charged with murdering her owner. The death resulted from Celia's efforts to defend herself against repeated sexual assaults. The court held that a slave had no right to self-defense. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that if the owner "was in the habit of having intercourse with the defendant" and, while attempting to do so, was killed as a result of the slave's efforts to resist, "it was murder in the first degree. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.