This fall, we opened a powerful new exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, which explores the struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that unfolded in the 50 years after the Civil War, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On September 7, to open the exhibition, we welcomed Dr. Brenda M. Greene, professor of English and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. Dr. Greene shared remarks written by her son, Jamal Greene, Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Below are his words.
Dr. Brenda M. Greene delivers remarks written by her son Jamal Greene.
Thank you, Louise, and greetings, honored guests. I want to first apologize that I could not be with you all in person to deliver these remarks. I very much wanted to attend the opening of this phenomenal and—if one can say this about history—timely exhibit. As it turns out, both the reason I am unable to attend and the medium through which my remarks are being delivered relate in interesting ways to the exhibit itself.
As to why I cannot attend, I am, as my mother speaks to you, sitting in a hearing room at the United States Senate assisting Senator Kamala Harris with her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh, who as many of you know has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Both for better and for worse, the Supreme Court has played an important role in the struggle for black equality, the struggle that, more than any other, has shaped our constitutional tradition. Without diving too overtly into politics, let’s just say that there are those who believe that much of the progress toward equality is at stake as the Supreme Court enters this next chapter of its political life. And so while I am not able to be present at the exhibit, I am living and working within its themes as we speak.
As to the medium for my remarks, I am so honored and proud that my wonderful mother, Dr. Brenda Greene, is able to stand in for me. She is not just the executive director of the Center for Black Literature—and therefore also someone who lives and works within the exhibit’s themes—but, more personally, she is my bridge to this exhibit. My beloved grandmother, and her mother, Beverly Moorehead, passed away this summer. She was 86 years old, born around the time when this exhibit ends. She was born in St. Mathews, South Carolina. St. Mathews sits in Calhoun County, named after John C. Calhoun, one of the most ardent American defender of slavery and one of the more despicable people in American history. My grandmother grew up around people who had been slaves.
I mention my grandmother because this exhibit is about memory. It is about what we remember, and how we remember, and who we remember.
Let me tell you an anecdote about that. I teach constitutional law at Columbia Law School. One of the first things that hits you when you study constitutional law is the degree to which the story of the U.S. Constitution is a deeply racialized story. Many of you are aware of the explicit bargains the Constitution made with slavery, or as it was often euphemistically called, “the peculiar institution.” The Fugitive Slave Clause, which promised that escaped slaves could be recaptured. The continuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade for another 20 years after ratification of the Constitution. The so-called three-fifths compromise, which unnaturally increased the basis for political representation in southern states. That compromise affected not only the composition of the House of Representatives but also the composition of the Electoral College. That in turn affected the presidency. With just two exceptions, every one of the fifteen U.S. presidents from the founding of the nation until Lincoln was either a slaveowner or was openly sympathetic to the interests of slaveholders. The two exceptions were John Adams, who served just one term, and John Quincy Adams, who also served only one term and who did not actually receive the most electoral votes in the election he won.
The Civil War was of course fought over the maintenance and expansion of slavery. Full stop. And the constitutional changes that emerged from the Civil War are what we honor when we celebrate this year the 150th anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment, the jewel of the Reconstruction Amendments.
The Constitution of the American imagination is grounded in promise of the Fourteenth Amendment and the other Reconstruction amendments. Rights of liberty and equality. Rights against state governments. Judicial recognition of rights. The power of Congress to protect civil rights, which it exercised most powerfully with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. All of that is rooted in the Reconstruction Amendments and the subsequent struggle to make those Amendments real.
And yet who do we remember when we think about our constitutional architects? We remember Washington, Madison, Jefferson, three wealthy Virginia slaveowners. Without Lin-Manuel Miranda, we might barely add Hamilton to that list. The heroes of Reconstruction were people like the Congressional radicals Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner; Hiram Revels, the black Civil War veteran and Mississippi Republican who became the first black member of Congress; John Bingham, primary author of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Inside the exhibition “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow”
So here is where the anecdote comes in. I became interested many years ago in how we remember the heroes of Reconstruction, and so I visited John Bingham’s hometown of Cadiz, Ohio. Bingham was not just the author of the most important text in the U.S. Constitution, and I would argue the most important text in any Constitution in the world. He was also an abolitionist, the prosecutor of Lincoln’s assassins, a House manager for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, and a minister to Japan. There is a large statue of Bingham outside the courthouse in downtown Cadiz.
But when you talk to the folks at the tiny historical society office a block from the Cadiz courthouse about the statue, they groan that tourists always think it’s a statue of Clark Gable. You see, “The King of Hollywood” was born and grew up in Cadiz. Gable is the one whose birthplace tourists come to Cadiz to see.
It’s a rich anecdote. I won’t put you on the spot, but I bet a number of people in this room have never heard of Bingham. And this is a pretty woke room, as rooms go these days. Why do we remember Madison and Jefferson and not Bingham? Part of the reason is surely the work of the Lost Cause movement and its resident historians of the so-called Dunning School. That movement and its historians painted a very particular picture of the roots of the Civil War and the facts and politics of Reconstruction and its aftermath: The rehabilitation of the racist slavery sympathizer and traitor Robert E. Lee as a noble Southern gentleman and patriot. The quote-unquote “states rights” rationale for the War itself. Thinking of Reconstruction as a corrupt system of spoilage and an historical error rather than as a necessary step toward justice. The idea of slaves as loving and relying upon their masters. The rendering of the Klan as vigilantes rather than terrorists. All of that nonsense is the work of the Lost Cause movement.
The movement was incredibly successful at shaping, and distorting, our collective memory of Reconstruction. Many northern whites viewed Reconstruction with wariness. For many, reconciliation with the South was seen as necessary to national success, and the Lost Cause narrative was seen as necessary to that reconciliation. Mainstream historians, many of whom were themselves racist, ceded ground to the Dunning School for a full century after the War, so that the Lost Cause narrative dominated both not just southern histories of Reconstruction, but northern ones as well.
And so who better to paper over the history of a man like John Bingham than Clark Gable, whose most famous role was in the film version of the iconic Lost Cause novel, Gone With the Wind?
The overall message of the Lost Cause was that northerners had to let the South work through the aftermath of slavery at its own pace, through its own institutions. From this perspective, Reconstruction was a mistake. The message was received loud and clear. The pain of Jim Crow is the vindication of that Lost Cause narrative, made real in flesh and blood. It is what happened when the South was left to work through equality at its own pace.
Photograph of young girls from The Crisis, May 1918. Indiana University Libraries.
This exhibit is about the Resistance. The struggle for equality that Reconstruction and the early years of Jim Crow represented is, unfortunately, all too timely. Words on a page have always been worth no more than the paper they’re printed on. Making those words come alive and blossom into law and justice has taken people like Bingham and Revels. It has taken people like Homer Plessy, who wouldn’t get off a segregated rail car in New Orleans, and Jackson Giles, who tried to register to vote in Alabama after its Jim Crow Constitution was put in place. Today it is the Dreamers, the kneelers, the separated families, the LGBTQ activists, the women who say enough is enough.
The struggle for citizenship goes on, but we find our guiding light through memory. This exhibit recovers the struggle and recaptures the nobility of a people too easily forgotten.
Jamal Greene is the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. His scholarship focuses on the structure of legal and constitutional argument. Greene is the author of more than 30 law review articles and is a frequent media commentator on the Supreme Court and on constitutional law. Greene served as a law clerk to the Honorable Guido Calabresi on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and for the Honorable John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court.