Monday, October 18, 2010

On the Civil Courthouse Steps...

This morning (late) I headed east on the metrolink.  My first stop was Grand Boulevard, where I headed north to the Fox Theatre.  If you've seen the film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll you've seen the wonderful scenes at the ticket window and lobby of the Fox where Chuck Berry recalls his family being sent packing by a ticket seller.  "We don't serve your people here," they're told.  Then, inside the lobby, surrounded by reddish pillars, he says something like: "Just a few miles away, my forefathers were sold on the civil courthouse steps.  Sold!"

I got to the Fox just moments before a tractor came to dig up the sidewalk where Chuck Berry stood during filming.  (I should have run up and nabbed some chunks to send to you like pieces of the Berlin Wall.)  That was our Berlin Wall, of course. We had laws that stopped children from seeing a movie.

The theater itself is beautiful, at least as far as I got inside, which was to a velvet rope that prevented me from seeing the actual lobby.  But I saw the ticket booths, both inside and out, and will have to look at the movie to see which one he was standing at that day.

While I was there I searched my St. Louis Visitors Guide map to see where the civil courthouse steps might have been.  No luck.  (But luck comes easy these days.  Knock on wood!)

So after a pulled pork sandwich across the street from the Fox, I went further east towards the Mighty Mississippi and the Arch.

When I got off the metrolink I didn't go straight to the Arch-- I was drawn to the river, itself, and to a huge bridge that led across to East St. Louis.  The bridge looks like it might take the London Bridge's path someday if we don't get our act together and spend some money on good jobs-- ah, but that's another story.  It's a beautiful thing, that bridge, and as I gazed at it I thought: "I bet he used to take that one to the Cosmopolitan!"

(He sure as heck wasn't metrolinkin' over the hill!)

These days, I'm guessing, he takes the freeway over when he wants to play slots or put on a concert in Illinois.  Freeways, after all, are his thing.  (Who else wrote so many songs about them?)

I touched the water.  I figure that water flows through so many of his songs, and through so much of our cultural history.

Then to the arch.  I wasn't expecting much.  I've seen it from a distance.  Okay, it's there.  But from right below, it's a thing to behold-- an impossible arc of steel against a blue sky.  I was impressed, and took the same arty shots you might take there.

But looking due west from under the arch I found my surprise: the courthouse steps.

The steps where his forefathers and mothers were sold.

It is part of a National Park.

And what's more, it's part of the sorriest story of American "law" and "justice."

Actually, it represented a glimmer of hope in a sordid story.

In that courthouse, it turns out, a jury of 12 white men gave a verdict in favor of Dred and Harriett Scott, who were suing the b@$&amp who thought she "owned" them for their hard earned freedom.

The Scotts had an excellent case.  Dred was brought to Missouri as a slave, travelled with the slave owner throughout the region, met his wife, married her (remarkably, the slave owner then purchased her) but spent considerable time in Illinois, a free state.  When the owner died, his wife "inherited" them and put them to work for wages which they were then forced to give her.  But they kept some, and saved, and eventually asked if they could buy their freedom.

B($%$ said "no."  (60 years later, her offspring sold tickets at the Fox).

So the Scotts sued her, and won.  The truth is, they had become legally "free" in Illinois.

But the Missouri Court of Appeals did what our current Supreme Court has been known to do of late: it ignored decades of precedent, said to hell with Illinois law, and said of the Scott familly: They're property.

Then the case got even uglier.  An old, ugly shrew of a "justice," Taney, wrote the following to justify the filth that he then made law of the land (whatever elements of truth are in this about "public opinion" should cause the "strict constructionists" among you to stop and think):

"It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.
'They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race." 
Then Taney and the majority of his fellow "justices" ruled against Dred and Harriett, held they were still slaves, and, to add injury to the injury, ruled they were not citizens.

That's why they call it the land of the free (Taney) and home of the brave (Dred and Harriet Scott).  Having won, the "owner" then sold the entire Scott family to the man who'd owned them prior for one dollar.

One dollar!

And he freed them.

Anyway, you can learn a lot listening to Chuck Berry, or by going on a Chuck Berry pilgrimage.

I'd encourage you to do both!  (But you already do!)

Dred Scott

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tulane, Cool shots of the Arch. I love the film that you can see of it being made.
Thanks for touching on the history, even if its terrible injustices. We must not forget the past, so that we hopefully won't make the same mistakes in the future.
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger