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Scholars, legal activists at W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing Conference cite the role of human narratives in the historic Supreme Court decisions on race

Monica Maggiano



Asheville, N.C. – A panel of scholars and legal activists today reminded civil rights, social justice and community leaders at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing Conference of the critical role that “human narratives” played in historic Supreme Court decisions that ended public segregation in the United States and opened the doors to racial progress. 

Douglas Blackmon, journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name,” said the legal arguments for many of the Supreme Court decisions during the civil rights era had been made for decades, with the court repeatedly reaffirming segregation. Blackmon, who moderated the plenary, said the arguments hadn’t changed over time, but the narratives had changed, including the stories and images being presented to the American public about the impact of racism. 

“It’s very important to remember that the Supreme Court for a hundred years before the Brown decision was, in fact, the most dangerous force in American life around issues of racial justice,” Blackmon said.   

“It was the Supreme Court that in 1896 … upheld segregation and the notion of ‘separate but equal’ and then reaffirmed that decision multiple times in the decades after that. And so it was the sanctification by the courts of these things that all of us now say, well, obviously, that was wrong. But it wasn’t so obvious at that time to the most powerful legal minds.”

Blackmon said the court rulings ushered in some of the most terrible abuses that occurred in all of American history and that extended right up to the beginning of the civil rights movement.  

“It’s also important to remember that Thurgood Marshall didn’t bring about the Brown decision and other great cases like that simply by having the best legal arguments or being so persuasive,” he said. 

“Some of the great decisions were based on arguments that had been brought for decades … What changed was the social narrative around this legal argument. It was not until the story of Rosa Parks, of this defiant, graceful woman refusing to be demeaned in the way that so many others had been demeaned, it wasn’t until that story was at the forefront of American discussion that then other legal ramifications and legal arguments began to take light. It wasn’t until Americans saw the Little Rock Nine being pelted with tomatoes that there was a change in the interpretation and perceptions of all kinds of judges at district court level all across the country. And it was the stories of the Little Rock Nine that affected Dwight Eisenhower, as slow and fumbling as he was on the – on race issues.”

Blackmon maintained that the narratives, the stories and images made the difference. “And so we have to remember that, and I think what we want to get at today are these stories and the importance of narrative.  These human narratives are critical to the way that the courts are operating today around the issues that are so important to you.”

Blackmon’s comments underscored the conference theme of “Reclaiming the Narrative.” More than 500 national and community-level leaders, community-based organizations and civil rights groups gathered for a collaborative process aimed at healing the wounds of racism and addressing conscious and unconscious bias. The objective is to engage participants in conversations on eliminating barriers to opportunities, especially for vulnerable children.

This opening plenary entitled, “How the Legal System Has Defined the Current Narrative,” discussed how the legal system has been used to frame the opportunities, systems and structures that define the lives and narratives of diverse communities. The panelists were: Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Valerie Davidson, senior director of intergovernmental and legal affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Priscilla Huang, policy director for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum.

Arnwine, for instance, cited the importance of the voting rights case currently before the Supreme Court, which may determine if several southern states that utilized discriminatory practices in the past to depress voting by African Americans will continue to have their voting procedures monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“From its inception, our country has had a struggle between the ideals enshrined in our Constitution and the reality of limitations on participation,” said Arnwine. “From the beginning, the list of those who could not vote included those without property, enslaved Africans, Latinos, women and Native Americans to this land. Successive generations have fought and fought to correct this democratic oversight by establishing laws that increase access to the franchise. The 14th, the 15th, the 19th, the 24th and 26th amendments all define citizenship, expanded who had access to vote and removed barriers such as poll taxes.”

These amendments, Arnwine said, were subsequently enforced through laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, parts of which are now being challenged. “Because of these amendments and laws, our democracy has been transformed,” she said, adding that suppression laws proposed and passed in recent years illustrate why we must constantly be on guard, particularly at a time when the demographics of the country are changing in dramatic ways.”

Like Blackmon, Arnwine cited the power of the narrative. “You know, we all have burned … imprinted forever in our minds, those images of people standing in line in November of 2012 for three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, some 10 hours, to vote,” she said. “And they stood there because they knew that they had a right to vote and that the Voting Rights Act was there.”

Meanwhile, Davidson, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, talked about her battle with the courts to continue helping vulnerable children in her state receive dental care. To deal with the extreme problem of access to regular dental care and the shortage of dentists, they started the Dental Health Aide Therapist program, which is a midlevel dental provider who performs basic dental services, which has significantly reduced the impact of tooth decay in Alaska villages. 

“We were able to set up our own structures,” she said. “We were able to manage our own affairs long before we had help from the federal government and long before we had help from state governments.” 

Davidson said the United States is the only industrialized nation without a mid-level dental provider. 

The Alaska Native community created this model and what followed she shared, was an unjust effort by some to diminish access to oral health care for Alaska Natives. 

“I used to think that you should do something even if it’s hard,” Davidson explained. “But what I learned from this experience is that you should do something sometimes because it’s hard. Because if you don’t, then maybe nobody else will, and this is too important.”

And Huang, of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, talked about the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Her organization had filed a brief in support of the health care reform law. She wanted the voices of her community to be heard on why it was important to use healthcare to battle health disparities. 

“We still thought it would be a good opportunity to insert the voices of the community members and the organizations that we work with on a day-to-day level and to show how important it is to include a narrative around racial and ethnic health disparities within this broader context,” she said. “And so the concept of voice became very important to us. And it’s a concept that, for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities is very complex, and in the broader historical context of civil rights jurisprudence is actually a fairly new one.”

In closing, Blackmon returned to the theme of narratives, saying it’s clear that today there is an even bigger burden on persuasion. 

“And the persuasion comes from the stories that people bring to the table,” he said. 

W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create the conditions where vulnerable children can realize their full potential in school, work and life. 

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Mich., and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti.

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