The True Miracle of the Constitution

LINDA R. MONK

March 04, 1993|By LINDA R. MONK

Rockville. -- At the main entrance to the Maryland statehouse, a statue of Roger Taney peers out over the Annapolis waterfront.

This son of Maryland rates his place on the state's front lawn because he was the fifth chief justice of the United States, who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, holding that even freed blacks could not be citizens of the United States.

To Taney, the framers of the Constitution clearly did not intend that persons of African ancestry be included as part of ''We the People'' or its government. Otherwise, he wrote, ''the conduct of [these] distinguished men . . . have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted.''

Blacks, Taney added, ''had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race . . . ; 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.''

Fortunately for the state and for the country, another Maryland native who also sat on the Supreme Court helped undo Taney's handiwork a century later. His name was Thurgood Marshall.

I had never heard of Thurgood Marshall when my Mississippi grade school was finally desegregated more than 20 years ago. His 1954 victory in Brown v. Board of Education, as an attorney representing the NAACP, came before I was born.

Fifteen years after Brown, most of the nation's schools were still segregated. The Supreme Court had held that public schools should be integrated ''with all deliberate speed,'' but many school districts were more deliberate than speedy. Finally, in a case involving the Mississippi schools, the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that all deliberate speed had come to an end.

By then Thurgood Marshall was himself a justice on the Supreme Court. He brought with him a lawyer's understanding of the Constitution's intricacies, having won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. But perhaps more important, he brought an activist's insight into the Constitution's practical realities.

Marshall grew up in segregated Maryland. He knew from experience that the Constitution designed by the framers contained the very inconsistencies Taney feared. In a speech commemorating the Constitution's bicentennial in 1987, Marshall set forth his credo:''I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever fixed at the Philadelphia convention that wrote it in 1787. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the framers of the Constitution particularly profound.

''To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite the Constitution, they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the framers barely began to construct more than two centuries go.''

As Marshall pointed out, '' We the People' no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of 'liberty,' 'justice' and 'equality,' and who strived to better them.''

Thurgood Marshall was one such person. He helped us all understand that ''the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life,'' and encouraged us to play a part in that ''living Constitution.''

Thurgood Marshall should have Roger Taney's place at the statehouse entrance. It is an enterprise to which I'd gladly contribute as a Maryland taxpayer. As is true of many other Marylanders, the person I am today is a result of Marshall's efforts. But if the state treasury can't afford a statue of Marshall, I'm sure civic groups and students would come up with the funding.

Prince George's County school officials are meeting tonight to consider a similar measure -- removing Roger Taney's name from a middle school in Camp Springs and renaming it for Thurgood Marshall. Said one board member, Alvin Thornton: ''This is not some knee-jerk reaction. It symbolizes a demographic, philosophic and intellectual evolution of our county, of which we should be very proud.''

Thurgood Marshall helped make that evolution possible. One can argue that Roger Taney was merely the product of his times. Perhaps so, but thankfully for our state and our nation that time is past. Maryland's statehouse should honor our hopes for the future, not our mistakes from the past. Thurgood Marshall helped make that future worth celebrating.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide,'' which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award.

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