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Earl Warren

Clint Reilly

As time marches on it’s easy to forget that one of the most influential Supreme Court Justices in American history began his career in Oakland in the 1920′s. After graduating from UC Berkeley Law School, Earl Warren became Alameda County District Attorney, Attorney General of California and Governor of California. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1954. Almost immediately after his ascendancy to the High Court, Warren was confronted with a landmark legal case that would impact politics, education and the law in the nation for the next fifty years. The case was known simply as “Brown v. Board of Education.” Warren led a potentially divided Court to issue a unanimous opinion banning segregated schools in America.

The civil rights movement of the 1960′s was waged over the principles laid down by the monumental ruling of The Warren Court in Brown v. Board of Education and other rulings for civil rights and racial justice made under Warren’s leadership.

On Thursday, June 28, 2007, after 54 years, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, Jr. issued a ruling that effectively reversed Chief Justice Earl Warren’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. According to an analysis in The New York Times, the decision meant that “…public school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race.” The Washington Post described the opinion as allowing the resegregation of schools by race, “The Court’s action, at a time when the nation’s schools are increasingly resegregating threatens voluntary efforts to desegregate our schools that were the promise of Brown”. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer – himself a Bay Area native and the son of the one time chief counsel to the San Francisco Board of Education – issued an outraged dissenting opinion. Breyer wrote, “This is a decision the court and the nation will come to regret.”

What is particularly bitter about the turnaround on Earl Warren’s landmark decision is the number of lives and careers that were risked to implement Brown v. Board of Education. Here is the story of only one.

In 1980 Los Angeles Congressman Jim Corman was Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He hired me to manage the most difficult challenge of his twenty-year career in Congress. Over the course of his campaign, I developed a deep respect for Corman. A tough former Marine who was present when the flag was raised over Iwo Jima in World War II, Jim Corman was a staunch supporter of racial equality and was the Floor Leader in the House of Representatives of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In Los Angeles, he was also a powerful voice for racial integration of schools. His position drew heavy fire from Bobbi Fiedler, the leader of LA’s anti-busing movement who decided to run against Corman for Congress on the Republican ticket. The Republican Party in Washington, anxious to defeat Corman, as chair of the democratic campaign apparatus, raised more than a million dollars for Fiedler. The campaign was waged in the racially charged atmosphere of the San Fernando Valley. After a fierce campaign on both sides, where Corman was often picketed by anti-integration activists, the candidates entered election day in a dead heat in the polls. After the votes were counted on the same night Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter and became President of the United States, Jim Corman lost to Bobbi Fiedler by 750 votes out of 200,000 cast. Twenty-seven years after Earl Warren banned racial segregation of schools, Jim Corman lost his congressional seat defending the principle. America lost one of its best members of Congress. Today, the United States Federal Building in Van Nuys is named the James C. Corman Federal Building.

While the Bush Court has apparently overturned the Warren Court, it will not overturn the life’s work of men like Jim Corman and countless other Americans who fought for equality in schools across our nation. Earl Warren’s legacy as one of our greatest Supreme Court Justices will endure.

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