Perspective of Literature
Original Publication - American Law: The Third Century , Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1976.
WHEN I was a young boy I often went out to the Oklahoma State Capitol, where I assisted Mr. J. D. Randolph with his duties as custodian of the State Law Library. I was about eleven years old at the time, quite impressionable, and very curious about the mysterious legal goings-on of the legislators. All the more so because while I was never able to observe the legislature in session, it was not at all unusual for me to look up from pushing a broom or dusting a desk to see one of the legislators dash into the library to ask Jeff—Mr. Randolph was always addressed by his first name—his opinion regarding some point of law. In fact, I soon came to look forward to such moments because I was amazed by the frequency with which Mr. Randolph managed to come up with satisfactory answers, even without consulting the heavy volumes which ranged the walls.
I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Randolph was a janitor instead of a lawyer or legislator; Oklahoma was segregated at the time, and Afro- Americans were strictly limited in their freedom to participate in the process of government. We could obey or break laws, but not make or interpret them. In view of this, I was amazed that Mr. Randolph had come to know so much about the subject. This was a tantalizing mystery, but the fact that white men of power would show no shame in exploiting the knowledge of one far beneath them in status aroused my sense of irony. That after all was simply another example of white folks taking advantage of black folks.
I was more impressed with the fact that Mr. Randolph could carry so many of the mysterious details of the laws which governed the state of Oklahoma within his owii head. I knew he had been one of the first schoolteachers in the city and the state, and that he read and owned a large collection of books. But just how he had come to learn the law was part of an experience about which I was never to hear him talk. I did know, however, that he had never attended college, and I was aware that many of our greatest lawyers had acquired their legal knowledge through the process of “reading” law with licensed members of the profession.
I only knew that Mr. Randolph appeared to possess a surer grasp of law than certain legislators, and my youthful sense of justice led me to see his exclusion from the profession as an act of injustice. I never heard him complain about the situation, but I felt that there was something shameful, even degrading, about such a state of affairs, and that there was something rotten in the lawyers, if not indeed in the law itself. Nor was it possible for me to ignore the obvious fact that race was a source of that rot, and that even within the mystery of the legal process, the law was colored and rigged against my people.
Later I became aware of the existence of a Negro lawyer, a Mr. Harrison, who was so skilled and eloquent that he got himself chased out of the state. Fortunately he landed in Chicago, where in time he became an Assistant Attorney General. Following this incident, however, there was much barbershop conversation centered on the Harrison affair, his legal skill, his way with words, and the inability of white lawyers and judges to stomach a Negro more knowledgeable in the law than themselves. Interestingly enough, the men who engaged in these conversations while I shined shoes or swept the floors directed their disapproval not so much against law in general, but against those persons and forces that imposed the law undemocratically.
This was a period during which the struggle to attain an anti- lynching bill was at its height, and Mr. Roscoe Dunjee, the editor and publisher of our local black newspaper, was writing eloquent editorials suggesting that the real ground for solving the racial predicament rested in the Constitution. I read his editorials, but I must confess that in my youthful cynicism I didn’t quite believe them. Anyway, the men in the barbershop believed in the spirit of the law, if not in its application.
As for me, I saw no hope in the law. It was to be obeyed in every-day affairs, but in instances of extreme pressure it was to be defied, even at the cost of one’s life. In our common usage, law was associated more with men than with statutes. Law-enforcement officers in our usage were “Laws,” and many were men with reputations for being especially brutal toward Negroes.
If such men were the cutting edge of the racially biased law, those above them were seldom better. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, who took great pride in his knowledge of Roman constitutions, was the governor of the state and a loudmouthed white supremacist. One occupant of the local bench, a certain Judge Estes, was famous for a quip made from the bench, to the effect that a Model T Ford full of Negroes ranging at large on the streets of the city was a more devastating piece of bad luck than having one’s path crossed by a squad of thirteen howling jet-black tomcats. Well, we laughed, but we held it against him. With such opinions issuing from the bench, I felt little inspired to trust the fairness of judges.
During the Depression I noted something else about the relationship between the law and the attitudes of people—in this instance mostly white—who were suffering from the breakdown of economic order. This came in the form of their reaction to “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who at the time was in constant flight and on a rampage of lawbreaking, but was frequently given sanctuary in Oklahoma City by law-abiding citizens. This was true not only of the city itself, but of towns all around Oklahoma. It puzzled me.
During June of 1933, I found myself traveling by freight train in an effort to reach Tuskegee Institute in time to take advantage of a scholarship granted me. Having little money and no time left in which to earn the fare for a ticket, I grabbed an armful of freight car, a form of illegal travel quite common during the Great Depression. In fact so many young men and women, prostitutes, gamblers, and even some respectable but impoverished elderly and middle-aged couples were hoboing that it was difficult for the railroad to control such passengers. I justified this out of sheer desperation, college being my one hope of improving my condition. But I was young and adventurous and regarded hoboing as the next best thing to floating down the Mississippi on a raft. My head was full of readings of the Ràver Boys and Huckleberry Finn. I converted hoboing into a lark until I found myself in the freight yards of Decatur, Alabama, where two white raifroad detectives laying about them with the barrels of long nickel-plated .45 revolvers forced some forty or fifty of us, black and white alike, off the train and ordered us to line up along the tracks. For me, this was a frightening moment. Not only was I guilty of stealing passage on a freight train, but I realized that I had been caught in the act in the very town where, at that moment, the Scottsboro case was being tried. The case and the incident leading to it had been widely reported in the black press, and what I had read of the atmosphere of the trial led me to believe that the young men in the case had absolutely no possibility of receiving a just decision. As I saw it, the trial was a macabre circus, a kangaroo proceeding that would be soon followed by an enactment of the gory rite of lynching, that ultimate form of racial victimage.
I had no idea of what the detectives intended to do with me, but given the atmosphere of the town, I feared that it would be unpleasant and brutal. I, too, might well be a sacrificial scapegoat simply because I was of the same race as the accused young men then being prepared for death. Therefore when a group of white boys broke and ran, I plunged into their midst, and running far closer to the ground than I had ever managed to do as a high school football running back, kept]
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The author( of American law- The 3rd centur, Fred B Rothman described about racial discrimination that was existing in America, during his childhood and early adulthood. He also shares various biter experiences, that he underwent, as he belongs to Afro American race.
During his childhood he was quite curious about the legal goings on of the legislators. He used to visit the State Library of Oklahoma. He was so impressed with the knowledge possessed by the library custodian Mr Randolph who possessed excellent knowledge in laws. He was a schoolteacher. Through his experiences at the library and by listening to the the answers of Mr Randolph he identified that Afro Americans are experiencing only limited freedom to participate in the process of government. They couldn't make or interpret any laws. He identified racial discrimination, as the afro-american races people are not getting positions according to their knowledge. He is aware of the negro lawyer Mr Harrison who was so skilled and eloquent and he got himself chased out of the state and reached Chicago, there he became assistant Attorney General. He also identified that the afro Americans are blaming only the actions based on the laws, not the laws. He understood that there should be a change in the laws, there should be change in constitution, toward the racial discrimination. So he decided to get degree from college. For that he travelled to the college after getting scholarship. Since he was not having sufficient money for travel, he travelled by a a a freight train along with other poor men like gambler's prostitutes, etc. Unfortunately they all caught by the white detectives. When the white men escaped, he too ran away and escaped.
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