During a recent visit to St. Louis, I visited the Old Court House, now a museum, where in 1846 Negro slaves Dred and Harriet Scott filed suit for their freedom. While at the museum I watched a video about the Scotts’ long legal struggle. The Scotts’ owners had taken them to Illinois, where slavery was not allowed and then returned with them to Missouri, a slave state. The Scotts alleged that their prior residence in a free state entitled them to their freedom, an argument well-founded upon the terms of certain compromises made as states were added to the union and upon legal precedent.
The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The central issue was whether the Scotts were entitled to their freedom based upon a period of residence in a free state. The Court held that they were not entitled to freedom. It rejected state court cases to the contrary and held that slaves were not citizens and therefore had no rights under the Constitution. Chief Justice Taney concluded that the authors of the Constitution could not conceivably have regarded slaves as citizens because “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.” Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)
The lives of the Scotts did not matter to Justice Taney and to six other members of the high court who joined his opinion. Their despicable attitudes and opinions that Blacks were merely sub-human property is one of the most infamous Supreme Court opinions ever handed down. Indeed, that opinion was a catalyst to the Civil War. Dred Scott and his wife did not obtain their freedom until they were sold to an owner who immediately obtained their emancipation papers from the very court where the litigation had commenced eleven years earlier. Dred Scott died soon thereafter, having enjoyed his freedom for less than a year and a half.
One hundred fifty-nine years have passed since the infamous Dred Scott decision was rendered. I ponder, has anything changed in over a century and a half?
Yes, there have been legal changes. The 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and declared all persons born in the U.S. are citizens. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and has effected many, many beneficial changes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened the doors to the polls for African Americans, although the Court recently eviscerated the key portions of the Act, opening the doors to States to close the polls to minorities by enacting mean spirited, discriminatory and unneeded legislation.
Laws have changed, but have there been changes in attitudes? Are Blacks accepted as full and equal citizens throughout our nation? Can the answer possibly be yes when blacks are driven to the streets to demonstrate against unjustified killings of blacks by police?
Dred and Harriet Scott’s lives mattered 150 years ago. They did not cow-tow to the establishment. They fought for their freedom against all odds in the establishment’s courts. They lost, but their fight and the court’s opinion were key factors leading to the Civil War and emancipation of all blacks in the nation.
Although Dred Scott’s life did not matter to the ruling forces 15 decades ago, his life and all Black lives matter to all of us today. Unfortunately, there are many among us who do not care a whit about Black lives. That must change. Unless we replace fear and hatred with love and brotherhood we will continue to have killings and demonstrations.
Dred Scott’s fight continues and we must join it.
Black lives mattered then and Black lives matter now.