Are black people human beings? Believe it or not, there was a time when the Supreme Court's answer to this question was no, not if they were slaves.
It was 1856. Dred Scott, a black slave, had been taken north of the Mason-Dixon line into Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. Scott sued for his freedom and lost. The Supreme Court ruled that the Compromise was unconstitutional. Congress, they said, had no authority to limit slavery in that way.
In the Court's mind, the choice to own slaves was an individual decision, a private matter with which each citizen must struggle apart from interference by the state. If a person, in an act of conscience, chose not to keep slaves, that was his own decision, but he could not force that choice on others. Every person had a private right to choose.
Dred Scott, as a slave, was declared chattel -- human property. He was a possession of his owner, and the owner had a right to do whatever he wanted with his assets. Three of the justices held that even a "Negro" who had descended from slaves had no rights as an American citizen and thus no standing in the court.
A civil war and 100 years of oppression stood between the slave as property and the slave as human being. Today, the dream of "Black America" has come true, by and large. Slavery is a thing of the past, and black individuals have been for the most part integrated into the mainstream of American life. In a climate of civil rights and civil liberties, the question "Are black people human beings?" sounds so bizarre it's almost comical. Who could ask such a thing today?
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