Authors examine US Supreme Court’s role in defining civil rights


Where’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis when you need him? The 2021 book “Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court,” needs to be banned so more people read it.

Historian Orville Vernon Burton and civil rights lawyer Armand Derfner partnered to write an easy-to-read history of the United States Supreme Court from the standpoint of how its decisions have impacted the law and civil rights. In the book, they examine more than 200 cases decided by the Supreme Court since it was established, with a special focus on their impacts on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The authors make the case that despite the Supreme Court’s reputation for protecting and expanding civil rights from the 1930s to the ‘70s, it has “blocked, suppressed and retreated from racial justice” both before and after that time period.

The book, published by Belknap Press, an imprint of Harvard University Press, will help readers understand how the collapse of post-Civil War Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and restrictive housing laws, the theft of Native American land, the exclusion of Chinese workers, the curtailing of voting rights and a variety of other racially motivated decisions made by the Supreme Court have led to fewer rights for fewer people.

Burton and Derfner will visit Michigan State University’s Club Spartan in Case Hall on Tuesday (Feb. 6) for a discussion of the information presented in the book. Their appearance is part of a university-wide celebration of the 70th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education and the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Patrick Levine Rose, one of the event organizers. Rose said MSU has more than 100 events scheduled to celebrate these anniversaries.

Burton and Derfner’s book presents a wild ride through the racial history of the United States as it relates to the Supreme Court. In the introduction, the authors detail an 1854 anti-slavery rally in Boston where one of the organizers, William Lloyd Garrison, literally lit a match to the U.S. Constitution. While lighting the match, he called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” That story may stand as the guiding light for the book.

The two authors were perfectly suited to share the writing responsibilities. Together, they have brought dozens of appellate briefs to the Supreme Court, often using the history of Supreme Court decisions to shine light on current issues. As an aside, Burton was one of 25 historians who filed an amicus brief in support of Colorado’s effort to remove former President Donald Trump from the 2024 presidential ballot.

Derfner was a key player in shaping the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s U.S. Supreme Court advocacy from 1975 to 2008. He filed party briefs and amicus briefs in cases interpreting the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments as well as civil rights laws from the Reconstruction era and beyond.

Rose said, “He is a witness to history.”

Burton is the first Judge Matthew J. Perry Distinguished Chair of History at South Carolina’s Clemson University, where he is a professor of pan-African studies, sociology and anthropology, and computer science. He is a prolific writer, having authored or edited more than 20 books and nearly 300 articles, and he formerly served as director of the Southern Historical Association and the Agricultural History Society. A recognized authority on race relations, he’s often called upon as an expert witness in discrimination and voting-rights cases throughout the country.

Burton said, “The book is an important look at how race has affected our history.” He and Derfner strongly believe that the last 54 years have seen a retrenchment of civil rights under the law.

Burton was born and raised a “Southern boy” in Ninety Six, South Carolina, and he attributes his dedication to racial equality to his mother’s influence.

“She taught me from day one that we’re all born in the same image and likeness of God,” he said.

Burton is optimistic that young people will help end the regression away from gains made to protect civil rights.

“That’s why some states are banning books. They don’t want young people to know history,” he said.


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