One of the interesting things about Open Civics, Dunn’s Civics, is that the world comes to class. We have been discussing National Service and we will return to it next week. But this week the world is discussing the end of life of Trayvon Martin. So will we, beginning with an introduction to a very important black civil rights lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. Z. Alexander Looby was born in Antiqua in 1899. At 13, after the death of his father, he came to America as a cabin boy on a whaling ship. Mr. Looby and his younger partner, Avon N. Williams, were the attorneys responsible for the litigation that desegregated Tennessee during the Civil Rights Movement, and each is memorialized in public institutions commemorating their leadership. Almost as significant as their national civil rights leadership was their contributions to the civic life of Tennessee: Looby was Nashville’s first black city councilman; Williams, a state senator.
All great civil rights lawyers of the era of Jim Crow and racial segregation were students of history. They had to be in order to craft the arguments challenging the laws and customs created in our Nations’ past. Mr. Looby’s view of the American past was also his view of the American future. For him, America would always be a Confederate nation, though his greatest delight was in trying to “beat It.” The Confederacy he was referencing was not the Confederate States of America, defeated in our civil war. Rather, he was referring to the transcendent civic values of the Founding Fathers granting men the power to value property over human beings.
For Mr. Looby, the measure of our Nations’ commitment to valuing people over things, over property, was the Nation’s commitment to live up to the Principles of the Civil Rights Amendments to the Constitution, particularly the 14th Amendment. Those Amendments to the Constitution were written and intended to protect the citizenship and personhood of the newly freed slaves. But within 20 years, in a series of cases (one, two, three, four), the Supreme Court had emasculated their intended purposes, subverted their language, and restored the Founding Fathers’ original intent to value in our laws, property, specifically, corporations over persons. The decisions in these cases simultaneously unleashed state terrorism on Black citizens and a reign of corporate greed that lasted until its collapse in the Great Depression in 1929. The story is told in Jack Beatty’s “Age of Betrayal, the Triumph of Money in America.” Listen to his telling beginning at minute 25.
Jim Crow did not end with the great depression. Mr. Looby began his quest to end it and to “beat the Confederacy” in Tennessee in 1927. His heroism in confronting his Confederacy is legendary as was his lamentation for the lives lost at its hand, sentiments captured here by Miss Shirley Verrett. For Friday check out Mr. Gary Younge’s column in the Guardian. And if you have a chance, this little cartoon show and its connection to Trayvon.