Arc of history under the St. Louis Arch


This is just so, so, so delicious.

Look at this photo.  It’s a shot of the crowd gathered in St. Louis on October 19 to see and hear Barack Obama — about 100,000 people.  Study the buildings in the photo.

Supporters of Barack Obama rally in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 19, 2008

Supporters of Barack Obama rally in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 19, 2008

See the building with the green dome?  Recognize it?

Elizabeth Kaeton wrote at Telling Secrets:

If you look in the distance there, you can see a building with a greenish-copper dome. That’s the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.

The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse.

Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on Scott’s behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were ‘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.’

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

What is rather uplifting is that, 158 years later, the man who will most likely be the first black US President was able to stand outside this very same courthouse and gather that crowd. Today, America looked back on one of the darkest moments in its history, and resoundingly told Judge Taney to go to hell.

That case is the first one I thought of when Sarah Palin got caught by Katie Couric unable to explain Supreme Court decisions with which she might have disagreed.  In re Dred Scott is right at the top of my list, and generally on the tip of my tongue.  We fought a great and bloody war to overturn that decision, amended the Constitution, bore another 100 years of atrocities, then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all to blot out the dreadful decision those conservative, activist judges wrought on the nation.

Kaeton posted the photo and comments last Saturday, before Freedom Tuesday when we voted as nation to clean up even more of the mess of the Dred Scott case.

History teachers:  I’ll wager that’s a photo you can get cheap, to blow up to poster size for your classrooms.  You ought to do it.  Students should not only understand history, they ought also be able to take delight in watching it unfold, especially when justice comes out of the unfolding.

Found the photo and post, with a tip of the old scrub brush to Blue Oregon, while looking at the astounding number of literary and history allusions in Obama’s unique victory speech, in which he talked about Americans trying to “bend the arc of history.”  I knew I’d heard that line before.  It’s from Martin Luther King, who saidm “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”  (Where did he say that?  When?)

Those allusions, and the speech, may be a topic for another post.

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11 Responses to Arc of history under the St. Louis Arch

  1. […] “Arc of History, Under the St. Louis Arch” […]

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  2. Thanks for the reply. I will need to think about this a bit. The identification of Obama as a black man with a Kenyan father, American mother, an Arabic middle name, and raised in Hawaii is a lot different than a Jesse Jackson, Carmichael, Malcolm X, Dick Gregory and millions of other black Americans who struggled with prejudice in the rest of the US. I don’t see the same connection to the black experience and I am surprised by those that do. I think we still see people by skin color though and that appears to be the predominant identifier. Perhaps we all are still stereotyping but our stereotype has changed.
    And that would be a good thing, too.

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    One of the ironies is that Obama’s family ties to slavery are on his mother’s side — some of her ancestors were slave holders.

    Obama is American, and he’s 50% African. He is, by any fair definition, an African American. He grew up mostly in America, though Hawaii is an interesting place to talk about the African American experience.

    But here’s the history: His rise to the presidency was not possible for anyone in his situation, with his skin color, until recently. Until a week ago, a lot of people thought it still would not be possible. Why do we embrace Obama’s experience as an African America as akin to an African American’s experience? Because it is.

    I don’t know what the origin of the “one drop” stuff is (and it may be South African in origin), but there is no doubt that African Americans are all affected by discrimination. In 1961, when Obama’s parents were married, their relationship was illegal in about half of American states. The Supreme Court struck down laws against “miscegination” in 1967. Although he may not have had a South Side Chicago culture growing up in Honolulu, certainly he experienced what other Americans experience when they go to college. Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of the world’s great ethnic salad bowls (14 different languages are spoken by “significant” portions of the population in Los Angeles); he moved Columbia University from which he graduated in political science and international relations (Columbia is located in Harlem, on Manhattan Island). He settled in Chicago, and worked as a community organizer with the Catholic diocese. I think it’s fair to say that he got a good deal of experience in how African Americans live in that job.

    At Harvard, he was elected president of the law review. Back in Chicago, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and practiced civil rights law. Some of us remember when blacks were generally not allowed to practice law, when they were denied the right to attend some law schools (see the history of Warner T. McGuinn, Thurgood Marshall, and others).

    Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. He’s still an African American. That he won the presidency is still history.

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  4. I remember when we all condemned the notion that one drop of Negro blood made one a Negro. Yet we are doing exactly that with Barack Obama.
    Today we have everyone going on ad infinitum that Barack is the first black President-elect and we all think that he is some type of American Negro.He isn’t. His background is not connected to any slave ancestors.
    Why do we now embrace Barack’s heredity of a Kenyan father and an American mother as akin to an American black experience?
    MFB- What’s the background of that “one drop”phrasing? Why is Obama’s success generally regarded as connected to the American Black experience?
    Words are funny things. They mean what we want them to mean when we say them regardless of historical context. This appears to be true in this case. I hope he is a successful President. America needs a good President at this time.

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  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Kevin, 100,000 in St. Louis, 75,000 in Kansas City later that day. I don’t think even the Rolling Stones ever did that well.

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  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Not that one. It is almost certainly by a reporter, but I’ve been unable to determine who or which one. The links at the bottom take you to photos by Jack Gruber, of USA Today. That collection has much brighter colors, and a slightly different angle. I found an AP version showing Obama walking off the stage, and you can see him better. Obama’s campaign rented a crane or cherry-picker to hoist photographers up to get a shot.

    I also wonder whether the campaign understood the historical significance of the courthouse in the background, but I’ve noticed at least five media outlets commenting on it, so someone made the connections right away.

    If anyone stumbles into the credits for the photo here, would you let me know? Thanks.

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  7. Rob Lopresti says:

    Do we know who took the photo?

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  8. Kevin Banks says:

    Wow what a turn out!

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