Memphis 'badge of slavery' case reaches Supreme Court

Driving along Jackson Avenue in midtown Memphis, you probably wouldn't even notice the new curb and sidewalk that block the entrance to West Drive, a small side street.

But those few feet of concrete have sparked a six-year-old controversy that goes before the US Supreme Court on Dec. 3.

To the upper-middle-class white residents who live on West Drive, the barrier means the end of transit that once jammed their narrow road.

To many of the black families who live on the other side of Jackson Avenue, the road closing means that their white neighbors are trying to close them out. West Drive has been their most direct route to nearby Overton Park and the city zoo.

The US Sixth Circuit of Appeals has proclaimed the barrier a "badge of slavery." It based its decision on the 13th Amendment, which prohibits "slavery or involuntary servitude. The street closing is "an unmistakable warning to the black people living to the north of West Drive to stay out" of the white subdivision, said the appeals court. Even without proof that closing of the street was racially motivated, the action constitutes "racial humiliation," it said.

If the Supreme Court goes along with the lower court's logic, it could open a new channel for civil rights litigation across the country.

The Memphis dispute began in the early 1970s when residents of Hein Park, the subdivision that includes West Drive, began asking the city to make the street a cul-de-sac. By 1974 they had convinced the city council, and the whole episode would probably have ended had it not been for N. P. Greene, who lived in the black community across Jackson Avenue when he was a child.

"Brother" Greene, as he is almost universally called, says the closing brought back a childhood memory. As a boy he had once tried to walk down West Drive on his way to the zoo (which, at that time, was open to blacks only on Tuesdays). He says that a policeman picked him up, swatted him with his stick, and told him never to walk on West Drive again.

So Greene now sees the West Drive barrier as a racial statement. "They wanted to prevent black people from driving as well as walking through the neighborhood," he says. And Greene, a controversial veteran of numerous political battles in Memphis, has almost single-handedly fought the street-closing.

The attorney for the Hein Park Civic Association, George E. Morrow, a resident of the subdivision, disputes Greene's view.

"This is purely and simply a case of a residential subdivision without sidewalks trying to protect itself against a flood of traffic." He adds, "it really never entered anybody's mind that there was any racial issue."

Richard Eckels, until recently president of the neigborhood association, points out that a heavily traveled four-lane street had formerly fed into the two-lane West Drive. He says that even if the families across Jackson Avenue had been white, his subdivision would have wanted the barrier.

Mr. Eckels and others concede that race problems in Memphis ae far from resolved. In a city that is close to 50 percent black, there is "not much contact at all" between the two groups, he admits.

When a black family bought one of the houses on West Drive, there was some apprehension among the white neighbors, says Eckels, but he adds that no houses went up for sale as a result. (Eventually, the black family moved out.)

Clifford D. Pierce, city attorney for Memphis, says that he has seen "substantial improvements" in race relations during the last two decades. "The black community has pronounced political clout," he says, and there is more respect between the races.

Greene, however, called race relations "next to terrible." Memphis has made only "insignificant" advances, says the community organizer who returned to the city after spending 30 years in New York.

The West Drive case could give lawyers a powerful anti-discrimination tool, according to Greene's lawyer, Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. "it's them case at this particular point" in civil rights law, he says.

If the Supreme Court accepts the "badge of slavery" argument, he predicts that civil rights lawyers will use it in many future cases. The argument can be used to challenge actions that adversely affect minorities without proving that the intent or purpose was to discriminate.

City attorney Pierce argues that if the court rules against closing West Drive, "it would create major problems not only for this city but for all cities. Everything you do affects someone." He says that such a ruling would be the basis for challenging every action that adversely affected one group more than others.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Memphis vs. Greene case on Dec. 3. A decision is expected within six or seven months.

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