Debate: From Dred Scott To Michael Brown
News out of Ferguson, Mo., has been devastating.
Since unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by an as-yet-unidentified police officer, local police have responded to the community’s demonstration of outrage with unprecedented force—using military-style weaponry to suppress peaceful protests, arrest black elected officials and detain journalists. And Brown’s death seems to have unearthed a history of disregard for the rights of black residents.
There is outrage across the country because Ferguson officials have not behaved as though the black citizens of this majority-black town have the same rights as all other Americans. Reporters keep saying that these images do not look like America, but Ferguson is America. And in America, black citizens should enjoy equal protection under the law and the right of a free press to report on what is happening anywhere in the United States.
And this moment in Ferguson, Mo., makes me think about the historic Dred Scott v. Sandford case, an 1857 Supreme Court decision which had its roots in this same part of the country.
Dred Scott was one of the tens of thousands of the enslaved who were born in the Southeast and moved west in the early 19th century. Scott was moved, first to Alabama and then later to Missouri, as his owner sought new fortunes on the American “frontier.” But white settlement required not only wars of displacement against Native Americans but also the violent removal of enslaved African Americans from their communities of origin.
Neither Native Americans nor black slaves were conceived of as having claims to anyplace they could call home. The enslaved were auctioned off and sold, traveling in shackles to the newly expanding Deep South or the new Southwest, while the Indian Removal Act of 1830 opened the door for the violent forced removal and warfare against hundreds of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. The process of making space for new white citizens—grounded in the notion of Manifest Destiny—could only be fulfilled through the exploitation of slave labor and “Indian removal,” a moment that marked citizenship as white, and black and brown bodies as movable and disposable.
Scott was purchased by U.S. Army Major John Emerson in 1832. When Emerson was assigned to Army posts in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin territory, he brought Scott with him. While in the North, Scott married, and started a family, while continuing to work for Emerson. Called South to serve in the Seminole War of 1840, Emerson called on Scott to return to Missouri with his wife and newborn daughter.
When Emerson died, his widow, Eliza Emerson, attempted to lease Scott as a laborer and keep all of the income. Scott, who had lived in the free North for more than a decade, demanded he be emancipated. After he sought to purchase his freedom and Eliza Emerson refused, Scott sued in Missouri’s courts for his freedom.
Missouri was at the heart of the national debate over slavery. Missouri had been admitted as a slave state as part of the Missouri Compromise, but there was also a small free black community in St. Louis who had found their way to freedom despite difficult circumstances. Scott had reason to believe that he, too, could be free.
And initially, a St. Louis circuit court ruled that Scott and his family should be free. However, Scott lost after Eliza Emerson appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Scott pressed appeal after appeal, finally being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1857 found that although Scott had lived in the free North and had been allowed to legally marry—the enslaved were legally prohibited from marrying—he was not, the court said, a free man. The decision articulated broad grounds for attacking not only Scott’s individual claim but also the freedoms of black Americans as a whole. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, wrote the majority opinion, asserting that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen.
In an unprecedented argument, Taney wrote that Scott had no right to sue, although in fact, black Americans had sued and petitioned for their freedom and their rights since Colonial times. Although some free blacks had even voted to ratify the Constitution, Taney dismissed the idea that the Declaration of Independence might apply to black Americans when it insisted that “all men are created equal,” writing, “It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.” In his version of “original intent,” Taney insisted that the framers of the Constitution believed that black Americans were so inferior that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The Dred Scott decision meant that to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you did not have a future. You were living in a country where, whether free or slave, you would never be a real American. It was devastating to black America. But despite attempts to wash away the history of black people in America, black Americans found their way to freedom, and through a valiant struggle over the next 100 years, found their way to citizenship rights.
It doesn’t sound all that far off from the situation facing Ferguson, Mo., today.
So as we witness the disrespect and discontent in the state where Dred Scott is buried, let’s remind ourselves just how wrong Justice Taney was. Although we shouldn’t have to do anything to “prove” our humanity and our citizenship, African Americans, through our service and our struggle, have more than demonstrated that we are part of “the people,” too. Police in Ferguson have no right to subjugate black protesters and trample on their rights to peaceably assemble and protest. And Michael Brown, in life and now in death, deserves that respect as well.
Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.