On Friday, May 5, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL) will host its annual Law Day Celebration in downtown St Louis. The keynote speaker at this year's luncheon is none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. One of the criteria I use to measure the mental and emotional health of black Americans is their position on Thomas. So on behalf of all self-aware, emotionally stable and politically woke black folks let me give some feedback on BAMSL's choice of a keynote speaker.
All lawyers are familiar with the term “a legal fiction.” The notion that America is a country of laws and not people is a legal fiction that has no basis in the reality of the black experience. America was founded by white male landowners for their benefit. The American legal system was designed to legitimize and maintain a socioeconomic order that suppressed black liberty for the benefit of landed white male privilege.
The issue is who authors laws and who benefits from their administration. The same U.S. Supreme Court that gave us Brown v. Board of Education also gave us Plessy v. Ferguson. What changed was the people in the robes. So let's talk about the people who have been members of that august institution. There have been scoundrels and the epitome of legal integrity, fools and legal geniuses, reactionary Neanderthals and prescient progressives.
There are two who are uniquely worthy of the contempt of black Americans. In the Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger Taney codified in law the American cultural conceit that a black American could never be a citizen and had no rights that had to be recognized by a white man; 160 years later, we're still struggling to overcome the effects of his opinion. Then there's Clarence Thomas – a breathing example of what the evil of American racism looks like when it metastasizes in a black body.
His legal rationalizations for the political and economic subjugation of the least of those in America, especially if they're black, is the judicial manifestation of his self-loathing. The fact that he sits in the seat once occupied by Thurgood Marshall is a blasphemy and the ultimate insult to the black community.
Which brings me back to BAMSL and their 5,600 members. What were they thinking? I subscribe to Napoleon's counsel that you should never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence or stupidity. Given St. Louis’ uneven history of racial progress and its very stressed racial environment, you would think someone would have said, "Who could we bring in that could move the needle in the right direction?” If that question got asked and the answer was Clarence Thomas, well, you can't fix stupid.
It may be relevant to point out that BAMSL’s 15-member Board of Governors has two black members, and that the organization – founded in 1873 – has had precisely one black board president in almost 150 years.
What troubles me more than a speech by a black political zombie is the silence from a sector of the legal community that I thought would be disturbed by the choice of Thomas for an event like Law Day. I'm talking about African-American lawyers.
It's impossible to tell the story of the 20th century struggle for civil rights and racial justice without understanding the role of black lawyers. The Missouri History Museum's current exhibition about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis bears witness to that participation. Where we stand today was made possible by the heroic efforts of black lawyers like Homer G. Phillips, George Vaughn, David Marshall Grant, Theodore McMillian, Frankie Muse Freeman and Margaret Bush Wilson.
What is the black legal community's response to the BAMSL choice of Thomas? If black lawyers remain silent, they help to legitimize the judicial philosophy of Clarence Thomas, which is antithetical to the wellbeing of the black community.
Mike Jones, who has held senior policy positions in St. Louis city and county government, serves on the St. Louis American editorial board and the State Board of Education.