Emory Report

 July 14, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 35

Bass brings historic civil
rights cases out of the shadows

Jack Bass, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, currently hangs his hats in Emory law school. And he does wear several hats. He is working on a PhD in American studies and researching civil rights law cases.

"I'm At Emory in a dual capacity. The law school was generous enough to give me space as a research scholar and, simultaneously, I'm a student in ILA working on a PhD in American studies," said Bass. "I've been working with Michael Bellisiles in the History Department on legal history and have some good additional informal support from people like Polly Price," he added.

He also has found time to lecture at several classes in the law school.

In addition, Bass has been working with Dan Carter and has taken a "very interesting" course with Patrick Allen in the history department on 19th century American intellectual history, which led him to a new perspective in looking more closely at the period from 1873 to 1903 and the Supreme Court's rulings on equality. A long series of rulings "eviscerated the 14th Amendment of its original meaning to protect the rights of former slaves and their descendants and transformed it to protect the rights of corporations," said Bass.

Bass, who has written extensively about civil rights and studied constitutional law as a Niemann Fellow at Harvard Univeristy, is focusing on the little known U.S. Supreme Court case Williams v. Mississippi, which established fundamental support for legalized white supremacy. "It legitimated, as constitutional, the disenfranchising provisions of the 1890 Mississippi constitution," he said.

The first real ruling from the Supreme Court on the 14th Amendment came in 1873 in a 5-4 decision in the Slaughter House cases. The court said the 14th Amendment was intended to protect only the rights of blacks, rather than all citizens. This gave a very narrow interpretation. The case was brought by white butchers in New Orleans, who said that their right to practice their trade was being infringed by state law, therefore denied them liberty protection provided by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court, in the same opinion, went on to say that the rights that it protects are essentially those granted by the states (the privileges and immunities of citizenship) and it was up to the states to enforce them. By that time Southern whites had regained control of the state courts. One dissenting justice said of the decision, "What was meant for bread was turned to stone."

But, said Bass, of the Supreme Court's decisions that undercut the 14th Ammendment, "Williams v. Mississippi is the crowning glory. Mississippi adopted procedures that did not mention race by name, 'read and understand' clause," which had the impact of eliminating blacks from any political role as voters or jurors.

"The more I got into it the more I realized that really nobody had taken a hard look at the period as a whole. Various scholars had looked at parts of it. Most Southern historians don't feel comfortable with the courts and most legal historians don't have that much experience with Southern history. So what has been done in the past is mostly bits and pieces. What I really want to do at some point in the next few years, is to write a short book that deals with this whole issue: the Supreme Court's impact on the idea of equality."

While a law professor at Columbia University, former Yale President Benno Schmidt looked at the 1898 case and wrote that it "provided as important a prop for the constitutional legitimation of racism in American law as did Plessy v. Ferguson." But Williams v. Mississippi is almost unknown. "It appears to scholars mostly as a footnote, or maybe a sentence," said Bass.

Bass' research will eventually become a book about the late 19th century, which will deal with the Supreme Court's role in ending Reconstruction, an issue that he says has not gotten the attention it deserves.

His most recent book, a Robert Kennedy Book Award winner, Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South's Fight Over Civil Rights provides a great deal of insight into the career of the legendary federal judge who played an important role in the civil rights movement. In writing the book, Bass said, "I became very much aware of the current issues and what happened at the middle of the 20th century." His earlier book, Unlikely Heroes, tells the story of Southern federal judges and civil rights on the old Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bass is author or co-author of three other books and seerved as executive editor for "The American South Comes of Age," a 14-part television course.

As his awareness extends to the late 19th century, Bass is sure to provide more insight into the judicial side of civil rights.

-Scott Barker

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