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Social Change and the Supreme Court

While it would not appear at first glance that there is a connection between legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks and Samuel Alito, President Bush’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court, I believe there is a connection, and an important one.

Rosa Parks, of course, defied a law that allowed city bus drivers in 1954 to force black passengers to give up their seats to white passengers. Her act of protest and subsequent arrest sparked a year long bus boycott in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Montgomery, Ala., that changed America forever. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The boycott introduced the world to Dr. Martin Luther King, and also launched a nationwide campaign for racial equality and civil rights. Her recent death gave the country an opportunity to recall these events.
 
Judge Alito, like Rosa Parks, is a symbol of a wider struggle. His nomination is the culmination of a determined effort by religious conservatives to get someone on the court that will help them “reclaim America.”
 
America was lost, according to these folk, when liberal judges began legislating from the bench. Their reference, of course, is to landmark decisions which legalized abortion and banned teacher led prayer in public schools.
 
But long before Roe v. Wade or the ban on prayer in schools, there were landmark civil rights decisions. America did not step back from racial segregation voluntarily. It was major civil rights decisions, like Brown v. Board of Education, that marked the beginning of the end for racial segregation. These decisions were also the beginning of the charge that liberal judges “legislate from the bench.”
 
This is where the life of Rosa Parks intersects the life of Samuel Alito. Religious and other conservatives have watched in horror as the power of the court has changed the face of American society. First civil rights, then separation of church and state, finally Roe v. Wade—it was too much!
 
Judge Alito is the great conservative hope that the America that was taken away by the power of the court can be restored by that same power.
 
But there is reason for conservatives to be cautious here. There are lessons to be learned from the civil rights movement other than the court victories.  
 
Rosa Parks and Dr. King dreamed that one day, because of non-violent resistance, not only would the law change, but racism itself would be driven from our hearts. And it happened here and there.
 
But for the most part it did not happen. Fifty years after the civil rights struggle, we have laws that protect minorities from discrimination, but racism runs rampant in the soul of our nation.
 
That’s because people change when their minds change, not when the law changes.          
 
Judge Alito’s promoters hope he will become the swing vote on a long list of social issues. In the name of “strict constitutional literalism” they envision an end to legalized abortion. Following a literal reading of the law they dream of a vibrant national piety characterized by prayer and Bible reading in public school. And with these social dynamics in place, America will be reborn!
 
But simply changing the law cannot create a culture of life and piety. As the Apostle Paul noted 2,000 years ago, the law is powerless to do such things.
 
What the law can do, as Rosa Parks reminds us, is create powerful structures of privileged interests. These interests usually do not serve the common good and often end in oppression and injustice. Rosa Parks also knew something about that.
 
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn, Ala.