I am childlike when it comes to Fourth of July fireworks. I love the spectacle, the noise, the ephemeral artwork in the sky. I also love to read our 1776 Declaration of Independence on that day because the words “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” speak to me as a positive mantra for the country.
Conversely, there are other words that I specifically detest: “Jim Crow Laws;” “separate but equal;” “Japanese internment centers;” and all others that isolate or denigrate.
As early as 1877, Black people in the United States were subjected to a series of statutes known colloquially as the “Jim Crow Laws,” a reference to a minstrel routine that originated in 1828 called “Jump Jim Crow.” The routine, performed by white men in blackface makeup, depicted unflattering stereotypes of Black men.
These Jim Crow Laws prevented Black people from commingling with whites in a variety of public spaces, from transportation to hotels and motels toschools, parks, cemeteries, theaters, restaurants, and more. Those individuals who broke the laws were subjected to beatings, imprisonment, and often lynchings. Where was the Liberty then?
“Separate but equal” is the infamous language used by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark 1896 case Plessy v Ferguson. The case held that Mr. Plessy, a Black man, could legally be barred from sitting in a railroad car designated for whites. The assumption in this ruling was that racially separated spaces could be equal in quality, therefore legally justifiable. The precedent established was then used to justify existing and expanded instances of racial separation – from schooling to water fountains.
I personally encountered these policies upon moving to Florida in 1959, when I encountered a copious amount of water fountains and public rest rooms. Black people were not allowed to use the same facilities as whites, even at that late date. When I tried the water fountain labeled “Colored Only,” I found the water to be warm, not cold. In retrospect, this was the quintessential unholy alliance between Jim Crow and “separate but equal.”
As part of a citizen fact-finding team in Florida providing information pursuant to a federal court school desegregation order, I found that “separate but equal” for Black seventh graders studying English meant that they went to an underfunded school in a poorly maintained neighborhood and shared one textbook for the entire class.
“Separate but equal” has proven itself to be an impossibility. Equality cannot be teamed with separation. It took 58 years before the US Supreme Court reversed itself in Brown v Board of Education in1954 and reversed course on “separate but equal.” But did the reverberations remain, as evidenced in my move to Florida.
Our government separated Japanese Americans during World War II and sent them to internment camps in the western United States. Yes, we were at war with Japan. No, we were not at war with these American citizens. Many of us, particularly those who attended school in less progressive states, or who were educated in earlier times did not even learn about this in our American History classes. These citizens were not only treated unequally; their stories have been hidden.
As conscientious citizens, I encourage us to work to ensure that any vestiges of Jim Crow Laws and ugly separation policies do not filter into the economic, political, legal or social fabric of our country. We can do so by being vigilant to the places where they may continue to exist and by teaching ourselves and our children about the history of our country. We can be proud to be Americans, a country that was founded on a promise that all of us are entitled to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As Jews, we have further moral obligation to this noble ideal. To return to more words that resonate with me, Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot: “Al tifrosh min hatzibur.” Do not separate yourself from your community.
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof l’maan tichyeh” – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…
Audrey Brooks is an Emeritus Judicial Member, State Bar of Wisconsin, lifelong volunteer, and current Tucson Hebrew Academy Board Trustee.