It’s Supreme Court Saturday, and I for one am pretty excited for our first case about Civil Rights Era integration. I don’t think that many people have read this one, since it’s much less inspirational than other cases from the era, so maybe the holding will surprise you.
This may come as a shock, but the Deep South used to be really invested in segregation. So much so that when the courts ruled that the City of Jackson, Mississippi needed to integrate its zoo, parks, golf courses and public swimming pools, the City could only bring itself to follow most of the order. Instead of integrating the public pools, they decided to take their ball and go home. The City closed four of the public pools and gave the fifth to the YMCA, which was a segregated institution in Jackson at that time.
The City readily admitted that the decision was so that they would not have to run integrated pools. They had some nonsense about the mystical significance of water, but the crux of their reasoning was that they would lose money because white racists would stop coming to the pool, and that the inevitable fights between black and white swimmers would present a public safety hazard. These are stupid reasons, but everyone kind of agreed that the City’s rationale didn’t matter beyond the core fact that the City would rather close the pools than run integrated swimming pools.
Several African-American citizens brought the City to Court, claiming that the closing of the swimming pools violated their Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which prohibit slavery and require “equal protection under the law” or fair treatment by the government, respectively.
The Court, in a 5-4 decision issued by Justice Hugo Black, found in favor of the City, saying that they could in fact close their pools.
The citizen’s Thirteenth Amendment argument was based on the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of “badges of slavery.” It’s a little obscure, but the Court had previously ruled that certain things like inhibiting voting rights based on race could be “badges of slavery” and, as such, were prohibited. The citizens felt that restricting their access to recreation was a badge of slavery. The Court was fairly dismissive of this argument but basically disagreed, on the basis that voting rights and swimming pool access were apples and oranges.
The Fourteenth Amendment argument was that this was just a covert way of reinstituting segregation. Private individuals and organizations could discriminate by race at that time. However, the Court had already ruled that the government couldn’t encourage private businesses to discriminate in an earlier housing case, and that the government couldn’t divert its funding for schooling to sponsor semiprivate schools in lieu of a public-school system, to preserve segregation.
The Court felt, first, that the City didn’t have any duty to provide swimming pools to it’s citizenry, so unlike the housing or schooling cases, it was fine to get out of the recreation game. The Court also held that it would need some evidence that the City was conspiring with the YMCA to see the City’s actions as encouragement of discrimination. They also felt that the idea of examining lawmakers’ motives was not fruitful. Basically, the Court couldn’t be expected to be psychic so they had to interpret the City’s actual laws and actions rather than the minds of the people who wrote and implemented them.
So the black youth of Jackson didn’t have a fun pool to play in that summer. Sorry for such a downer of an introduction to the subject of Supreme Court integration cases!
What really interests me about this case is how differently I feel it would have been ruled now. I think our society has progressed to a place where this behavior is so abhorrent that the Court would find a way to rule differently, were this to happen in 2018.
I’m also interested that the Court was so flippant about the value of recreation. All the pools in Jackson required money or connections, something white people almost always have more of than non-white people, to access. The value of a life with something to do other than reckless or destructive behavior cannot be understated, and I’m surprised that the Court didn’t even consider that aspect of the argument.
 Except regarding the Framers of the Constitution. Then they totally can be psychic. Trust them.