Brown reversal is the first casualty of their interpretive powers
Words have always been very powerful. Words convey the thoughts and ideas of others and pass them on to those who were not present when the original words were spoken. Within American culture, the two most powerful collections of words are the United States Constitution and the Bible.
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One of the most interesting things about these particular writings is that there are always new and different interpretations as to what they say and what they mean. Time and the lust for power make it so.
Another interesting peculiarity about these writings is that, up until 50 years ago, the translation and interpretation of these texts were done by White men dressed in long robes. By and large, American culture, at least until 50 years ago, claimed Christianity as its religion.
Before I get into early American interpretation of the Bible, I think a few words on the person who is at the center of American Christianity might be appropriate. Jesus, or the Christ, who was born in a stable amongst animals, called the religious leaders of his day vipers and snakes. He thought the priests of his day were poor examples to follow when it came to the interpretation of God’s laws: that is, “Do what they say, not what they do.”
He did not hang out with the rich and powerful but the poor and downtrodden, and whenever he had the opportunity, he criticized the lawyers. Jesus was not considered a priest. He was thought of by the masses as a teacher and prophet.
At the end of the day, those who held political and religious power killed him. Jesus’ interpretation of the Bible did not suit their political goals and objectives.
Up until 50 years ago, the American icon of religious thought in America was Billy Graham, and in the eyes of many that is still the case. Billy was an evangelist who preached a message of salvation to segregated audiences.
However, America was introduced to a new translation of the Bible when Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the very notion of segregation being moral on any grounds. King’s sermons questioned the notion of the God of the Bible participating in the act of segregation.
But more than this, King questioned the very notion that the post-Civil War Constitution supported segregation. After careful study of the document, King was convinced that segregation was not legal. One of the first documents written and published by King is “The Negro and the Constitution.” It was written in May of 1944 while King was in high school.
There were two major events that transformed life in America between 1954 and 1964. The first was a Supreme Court decision in 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education. The other was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Congress did this.
Both of these decisions made many Whites in America uncomfortable because it ended legalized apartheid. The chief justice for the Supreme Court that wrote the opinion in Brown was Earl Warren, a Republican and former governor of California. The Congress that passed the Civil Rights Act was made up of a majority of Democrats. It would appear that King’s new interpretation and translation had an impact on the government.
Soon afterwards, White southerners abandoned the Democratic Party and went Republican, and since that time they set about to control the government. That process saw fruit in 1994 when the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.
In 2002, the Republican plan to control the government was actualized. They had control of the presidency, the House and the Senate. Bush wasted no time in appointing ultra-conservative judges to the federal courts. Bush appointed Samuel Alito and John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court. His father had appointed Clarence Thomas, and Ronald Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy — all Republican presidents with a view bent on keeping the rich in power.
The men in long robes who were appointed guaranteed that the Republicans would get the interpretation and translation that they desired. Like the lawyers and priests in Jesus’ day, they did not want any new translations.
On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court, in a five-to-four ruling, pretty much reversed the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. The above-mentioned judges voted to reverse it.
Words are powerful, but being able to control how those words are interpreted and translated is even more powerful.
Karl Johnson, former MSR culture critic and frequent contributing writer, will comment regularly on current affairs in this column. He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.