Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy: Supreme Court Matters

Jim Crow CapitalToday we welcome a guest post from Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, author of Jim Crow Capital:  Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920–1945, which UNC Press will publish in November.

In her new book, Murphy tells the story of how African American women in D.C. transformed civil rights politics in their freedom struggles between 1920 and 1945. Even though no resident of the nation’s capital could vote, black women seized on their conspicuous location to testify in Congress, lobby politicians, and stage protests to secure racial justice, both in Washington and across the nation. Women crafted a broad vision of citizenship rights that put economic justice, physical safety, and legal equality at the forefront of their political campaigns. Black women’s civil rights tactics and victories in Washington, D.C., shaped the national postwar black freedom struggle in ways that still resonate today.

Jim Crow Capital can be pre-ordered now at the UNC Press website.

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Supreme Court Matters

The confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, once thought to be swift and smooth, has now become dramatic and uncertain.  As the ninth justice, Judge Kavanaugh would cast the deciding vote on crucial issues, including reproductive choice, marriage equality, labor organizing, immigration, and voting rights.  Reports that Judge Kavanaugh, as a high school and college student, may have assaulted women, has raised serious concerns about whether these alleged actions constitute acceptable behavior for a justice of the Supreme Court, arguably one of the most significant positions in American government with a lifetime appointment.  The fate of Kavanaugh’s confirmation rests, in part, on the willingness of women to come forward and testify, and whether members of the Senate will take that testimony seriously.

Eighty-eight years ago, African Americans living in the United States confronted a similar crisis.  In March 1930, Supreme Court Justice Edward T. Sanford died in office, prompting Republican President Herbert Hoover to nominate North Carolina Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court.  Even in an era when news traveled at a slower pace and the views of nominees were harder to pinpoint, African Americans knew that Parker’s ascension to the Supreme Court would be dangerous.

As a politician and judge, Parker embodied the basest mores of the Jim Crow South.  In a 1920 speech for his North Carolina gubernatorial run, Parker had stated that “the participation of the Negro in the political life in the South” was “harmful to them and to the community” and that African Americans had “no desire to participate in politics.”[i]  In another address, Parker equated the relationship between African Americans and the Republican Party as “a source of evil” and a “danger to both races.”[ii]  The prospect of a Supreme Court justice who was so explicitly hostile to black participation in politics caused African Americans to mobilize their organizations and networks to thwart Parker’s confirmation.

Marian D. Butler, a black activist living in Washington, D.C. who herself could not even vote, leapt to the challenge.  As a native of South Carolina, she had witnessed firsthand her state transform from democracy to disfranchisement under Governor Benjamin R. Tillman.  Concerned about the fragility of black civil rights, Butler contacted local chapters of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in every state where Republican senators favored Parker’s confirmation and alerted black newspapers about her concerns.  She also wired telegrams to every Republican senator who supported Parker’s confirmation, informing them of the NACW’s strong opposition.  “Through the colored press and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs,” Butler wrote to each politician, “I am asking the colored women to note your stand in the Parker case.”[iii]  On May 1, 1930, Republican Senator of Ohio, Simon D. Fess, read Marian Butler’s telegram on the floor of Congress, calling her efforts “manufactured clamor.”[iv]  The black press covered the case, highlighting Marian Butler’s lobbying.  An article in the Baltimore Afro-American entitled “Mrs. Butler’s Anti-Parker Wire Peeved Senator Fess” featured the subtitle “Washington Woman Reminded Ohio Senator that Women helped elect him and can Work just as hard for his defeat.”[v]  Butler’s advocacy was one part of a larger movement by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, numerous black citizens, and labor leaders, to block Parker’s confirmation.  On May 7, 1930, the Senate voted by 41-39 to reject John J. Parker’s ascension to the Supreme Court.[vi]

There are many lessons to be learned in the defeat of Judge John J. Parker.  1930 was a vastly different era than our current moment in 2018.  Only ten years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, a black woman named Marian Butler raised her voice in support of democracy and justice on the Supreme Court.  Even if the Senate votes to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh, voters in November can heed Marian Butler’s political advice, and work to defeat the senators and legislators who ignored the testimony of women in matters of the Supreme Court.


Notes:

[i] John J. Parker in The Charlotte Observer, April 18, 1920, as quoted in Kenneth Goings, The NAACP Comes of Age: The Defeat of Judge John J. Parker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 23.

[ii] Judge John J. Parker as quoted in the “Report of the Acting Secretary,” April 1930, in Goings, NAACP Comes of Age, 24.

[iii] Senator Fess, Congressional Record 1 May 1930, 71st cong., 2nd sess., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930): 8115.

[iv]  “Mrs. Butler’s Anti-Parker Wire Peeved Senator Fess,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 10, 1930, A1.

[v] “Senate Rejects Parker,” Chicago Defender, May 10, 1930, 1.

[vi] “Senate and Supreme Court: A New Test,” New York Times, May 11, 1930, 53.

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Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy is assistant professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.