The Big Win

Adam Winkler traces the history of corporate civil rights in 'We The Corporations'

Published 2 years ago on Sep 09, 2018 Read

In the early twentieth century, the Supreme Court began to focus on civil liberties in response to the persecution of socialists like Jacob Abrams and the silencing of newspapers like Charles Manship’s Capital City Press. By mid-century, the court, under the leadership of Earl Warren—often named alongside John Marshall as the greatest chief justices in American history—had finally begun to embrace a commitment to racial equality to match its commitment to free speech. Racial minorities, as much as if not more than political dissenters, needed the judiciary to protect them from the tyranny of the majority. The civil rights movement provided the court with the opportunity to more fully realize Harlan Fiske Stone’s proposal from Carolene Products to recast the court as a bulwark against the persecution of minorities. At the same time, the civil rights movement also led the Warren court to expand the constitutional protections for corporations, affording at least some of them another liberty right they had previously been denied—the freedom of association.

Corporate rights became entangled with the civil rights movement in 1956, when elected officials across the South determined to aggressively persecute civil rights activists, especially the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Founded in 1909 by famed African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois and others, the NAACP had already made considerable headway by the time of the crackdown. Brown v. Board of Education, decided two years earlier, promised to end segregated public schools. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, triggered by longtime NAACP member Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a city bus, brought widespread condemnation of Jim Crow. Integrationists had gained the political and legal momentum, and reactionaries decided it was time to put the nation’s leading advocate of civil rights out of business.

Of course, the NAACP was not a business. Yet it was organized as a corporation, a nonprofit membership corporation under New York law. It was the NAACP’s status as a corporate entity that Alabama and its young, ambitious attorney general, John Patterson, tried to use to destroy the organization. Patterson was elected to that post in 1954 after his father, Albert Patterson, the original Democratic nominee, was gunned down for promising a crackdown on organized crime. The son ran in his father’s place, and turned his attention to the equally popular (and much less dangerous to himself) issue of fighting racial integration. His strategy paid off, and within four years he was elected governor of Alabama on an anti–civil rights platform.

Alabama was a central battlefield in the war over racial equality. The bus boycott triggered by Parks propelled a 26-year-old local pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery into the national limelight and a leadership position in the movement; Martin Luther King Jr. would also write his momentous Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) behind Alabama bars. Civil rights protestors would bravely cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where their bold activism was met with brutality. White terrorists in Alabama bombed the homes of activists Ralph Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, and King, along with the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls attending Sunday school. Freedom Riders were attacked with pipes and bats in the state, their bus set on fire. Often the violence was at the hands of government officials, like Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who sicced German Shepherds and trained fire hoses on marchers.

This is an extract from Adam Winkler's We The Corporations published by Liveright