On Wednesday, November 6, William Carter Jr., Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, delivered the 18th Annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society. His powerful talk, entitled “The Thirteenth Amendment, the Legacies of Slavery, and the Promises of Freedom,” addressed how the courts have interpreted this amendment—and how it can be used more fully to advance civil rights.
The Supreme Court, Carter said, has historically swung between two poles in its reading of the 13th Amendment—either it refers solely to chattel slavery, or it can be defined more broadly. Carter argued that the framers of the 13th Amendment did not intend to simply outlaw chattel slavery. They meant to “eradicate” the “surrounding infrastructure of customs, practices, and the systemic entrenched forms of subordination that supported an ideology of white supremacy and enabled the system of slavery.” All of this could be summed up in one phrase: “the badges and incidents of slavery.”
With meticulous reasoning, Carter showed that a Second Circuit case illustrated how the 13th Amendment could be broadened. In 1991, an African-American killed a Jewish man during the Crown Heights riots, precipitating Nelson v. United States. The defense argued that a federal hate crimes law should not be used against the defendant, since the law was meant to protect blacks, not be used against them. However, the court rejected that claim.
In this case, the defendant had targeted Yankel Rosenbaum for being Jewish, and Carter explained that the court deemed that such an injury, done on the basis of a person’s perceived background, was “closely associated with the slave system.” This got at what Carter had argued from the beginning: In the eyes of the 13th Amendment’s framers, slavery had “distorted the fabric” of the nation to such an extent that the court said that “therefore any circumstance that is a legacy of slavery, whether or not inflicted upon someone who is African-American, would be a badge or incident of slavery.” It didn’t matter that this particular defendant was African-American either—what mattered was the nature of the crime. As a result, this case showed that the 13th Amendment could be extended to protect not just African-Americans but everyone.
Carter left the meat of that particular point for his article, published in the Maryland Law Review in 2011, which he said he wrote largely in honor of Professor Derrick Bell’s work. This idea—that the 13th Amendment could be used to rid the country of all vestiges of slavery, to truly embrace freedom—was a poignant way to end a Bell Lecture.
Bell passed away in late 2011, at the age of 80. His wife, Janet Dewart Bell, had established the lecture series on his 65th birthday. John Sexton—president of New York University and the man who, as dean of NYU School of Law, brought Bell over from Harvard Law School—praised the night as a “sacramental evening for those of us who gather in the flock of Derrick.” Fondly recalling his friend, he added, “He was a man who incarnated love in the way the scriptures speak of it.”
Carter, too, had been touched by Bell’s work. Reading his And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest For Racial Justice had convinced him to go to law school. Carter admired “the ability of his work to both wake you up as well as affirm the things you’ve been feeling and give you a language to express all of those things.”
For those gathered there to honor Bell, especially the future lawyers passionate about social justice, Carter also had these words of wisdom: “Let me tell you that I cannot guarantee you that there is any glory or victory in that struggle for social justice, but I can tell you that there’s joy to the struggle itself, as shown through the life of Professor Bell.”
Watch the full program here (1 hr, 20 min):
Posted on November 19, 2013