Paul Greenberg

This country, in contrast to Europe with its wars and revolutions, has been blessed with a remarkably continuous history - with the exception of that unfortunate interlude from 1861 to '65, aka the late unpleasantness.

In a curious reversal, both sides in that terrible conflict switched their legal positions once the Union was restored and peace finally returned:

The Southern states that had left the Union explained that, since they were now back, they were entitled to all the powers and perquisites pertaining to statehood, including full representation in Congress.

On the other side, the Republican Radicals who had insisted during the war that the Union was indissoluble, explained that the Southern states, having broken the compact, were no longer full-fledged states but "conquered territory," and should be treated as such.

Here's the moral of that story: Law may reflect not so much legal principles as the interests and desires, passions and prejudices, of those debating it.

Much the same curious reversal seems to be taking place in the current, and apparently endless, debate in this country over schools, race and the law. Little Rock's school integration, for example, is still in the courts after half a century of litigation, even if it's styled differently from time to time.

Back in 1958, after it had become the focal point of a constitutional crisis, Little Rock's school district asked the federal courts to delay racial integration for a couple of years in order to preserve the "educational quality" of its schools.

Underlying that appeal was the assumption that educational quality emanates from the presence of white students, and the fear that, if they fled integration, the public school system would be doomed.

To quote Virgil Blossom, Little Rock's school superintendent at the time, "Our purpose was minimal compliance with the law in a manner acceptable to the courts and the community - not to wreck the school system by arousing resentment." (By community, of course, he meant only the white community.)

That argument, though successful on the district level, was turned down on appeal, first by the Eighth Circuit and then by the U.S. Supreme Court in emergency session. In the eyes of the justices, the individual rights of black students trumped arguments about the need to preserve "educational quality" and the stability of the school district. And those black students were not to be discriminated against solely because of their race.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.