Interview with Constance Baker Motley


Judge Constance Baker Motley:

Well, of course what really happened in the Meredith case when the state decided to resist, they were playing out the last chapter in the Civil War. I think most Americans have forgotten that there was a war, a Civil War in this country, over the rights of black Americans. The south fought the north over this question. And there was lingering bitterness and disagreement for many years, and the south insisted on denying black Americans full citizenship rights. And so here we were in 1961 with the south saying to the north in effect, or the rest of the country, "We're not going to give blacks equal rights. We think that separate but equal is good enough for now." And so the constitution was really put to a test here, the new constitution that is, which came about with the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave black Americans their rights. And Mississippi was really challenging constitutional provisions, those constitutional provisions. Now when a federal court issues a lawful order, to enforce the constitutional rights of any Americans that have been, the responsibility for the enforcement falls upon the President, because the court doesn't have the physical means to enforce the decision. But the president does, and he has the armed forces of the United States, to put down any resistance, physical resistance, such as we had in Mississippi, to the enforcement of a lawful order of the federal court. Because under our system, the federal government is supreme, supreme to any state government and the south was not agreeing to that proposition when it came to the rights for black Americans. And so our constitution was put to the test, as I have said, and survived. Our country is stronger now for having had that demonstration of what the constitution means in practical application.