“Freedom Riders” shows folly of states’ rights

The exception proves the rule. That is certainly the case with something as complicated as the American system of federalism and the concept of states’ rights. The basic rule is that the federal government has been a much better protector of human and economic rights than the states. This contention was brought to light once again by the remarkable PBS documentary, Freedom Riders. First the rule, then the exception.

At the beginning of the film, historian Raymond Arsenault succinctly states the goal of the Riders. “The Freedom Rides of 1961 had a simple but daring plan: The Congress of Racial Equality came up with the idea to put blacks and whites in small groups on commercial buses, and they would deliberately violate the segregation laws of the Deep South.”

Slavery has been called America’s original sin. As originally written, Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution stated:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The three-fifths clause was actually a concession by both Southern and Northern states. Virginia, North Carolina, and other states south of the Potomac wanted slaves to count as full persons in order to increase their population and thus give them greater representation in the House of Representatives. Northerners felt that if slaves couldn’t vote that they shouldn’t be counted for the purpose of apportionment. The three-fifths compromise was acceptable to both sides.

Southerners did not see slavery as an egregious violation of human rights. Rather, they saw it is an essential element in the production of cotton and tobacco, the two crops that were America’s greatest exports at the time of the Constitution.

To Abolitionists, the Civil War was fought over the existence of slavery. To Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln, the war was fought because a suitable compromise could not be reached with southern states to prevent the expansion of slavery. A peaceful accord could not be reached. War ensued, and when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia the North had presumably won.

The rules of the North prevailed in the South through 1876, when a political compromise was reached, removing Northern soldiers from the South. With the federal government no longer protecting human rights, the South abused African-Americans in vicious and persistent ways. Jim Crow Laws permitted racial segregation that, in many ways, was tantamount to slavery.

It was these Jim Crow Laws that re-enslaved African-Americans. Attempts to overturn these laws were few and generally futile. However, there was an inexorable movement toward integration that was demonstrated, in part, by President Harry Truman’s decision in 1948 to integrate the armed forces. Six years later, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools must be desegregated.

However, as pointed out in “Freedom Riders,” a federal ruling did not necessarily mean that change would ensue. Consider the following excerpt from the transcript of ‘Freedom Riders:”

Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Almost certainly there wouldn’t have been Freedom Rides without Irene Morgan. She refused to give up her seat on a bus in Gloucester County, Virginia, in July of 1944. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. And in Morgan vs. Virginia, in June of 1946, on paper at least, the Supreme Court struck down segregation in interstate travel on buses.

Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: But no state in the South obeyed these decisions, so it was as if they’d never happened. The Greyhound Bus Company, the Trailways Bus Company were able to hide behind the refusal of State law to accommodate to Federal law. So despite the fact that you’d had these national rulings, which should have been law everyplace in the country, they weren’t in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, across the South — business as usual.

There is actually earlier historical precedent to the states refusing to follow federal mandates. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that state law governing aspects of Indian lands was unconstitutional. Even though Andrew Jackson was President of the United States at the time, he is alleged to have said words to the effect; “John Marshall [chief justice of the Supreme Court] has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

This is why the 14th Amendment, passed following the Civil War to provide equal protection to all under the law, was toothless once Jim Crow began. Not until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were passed did the federal government have the mandate, the obligation, and the power to overrule state rulings that undermined federal supremacy.

The Freedom Riders were vital to motivating federal action to protect African-Americans. Franklin Roosevelt had supported integration in theory, Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, and Dwight Eisenhower enforced court orders to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. When John Kennedy took office in 1961, he was hoping that integration would not be an issue that would consume his time. His preference was to work on foreign affairs.

As is so vividly portrayed in “Freedom Riders,” the actions of the Riders and the coverage that their non-violent bravery was given by the press forced President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to put a federal presence in the South to protect human rights that had not existed since Reconstruction. The Freedom Riders put in motion a series of acts in which the nation said that Southern states could not defy federal law. As time would prove, it was a lesson that states elsewhere in the country needed to learn as well.

Back to the exception proving the rule. A few states actually have more humane immigration laws than the federal government. There are also others that prove the point that the federal government knows best.

For anyone who has doubts about the wisdom of federal trumping state, just go back and re-watch “Freedom Riders.”

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.