Long live America!

By Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman of, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

Some time back a group of 15 or 16 Americans came from USA to India. They were all white, half of them women.

Someone organized a meeting between them and me in Delhi.

When we sat together I mentioned in my address to them that the condition of blacks of the USA was fairly good.

At this most of them vociferously disagreed (though they were themselves all white).

I then asked them, “How many of you have read Mark Twain’s novel ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”.

This is a truly great American novel, and Ernest Hemingway, himself a great novelist, often said that all American literature begins with that single novel. However, it was at one time banned in some places in America because of its alleged racist slurs, particularly the use of the word ‘nigger’ which is today regarded as very offensive in America.

Only a few of the group said that they had read it.

I then related a scene in that novel when there is an explosion, and  Aunt Sally  (a middle-aged character in the novel ) said on hearing about it, “My God! Was anyone hurt?”. To which Huck replies ” No Ma’am, only a nigger killed ”.

Having said that I said that this indicates that before the Civil War in America (1861-65) which abolished slavery blacks were not even regarded as humans, and could be even killed by their masters.

Their degradation continued for a long time even after the Civil War, with Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, frequent lynchings of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan and others, denial of voting rights, etc. Though legally emancipated from slavery, most of them remained very poor and with little education.

Racial segregation was legally upheld by the infamous decision of the US Supreme Court in Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) which laid down the devious principle of ‘separate but equal’. As a result there was racial apartheid in America (as in South Africa), and there were segregated schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, cinema theatres, public transportation in buses and trains, housing locations, swimming pools, sports, etc. In many states ( particularly in the south) interracial marriages were legally prohibited ( as in Nazi Germany ), and in many areas, blacks were not allowed to enter, e.g. in many beaches in Florida.

However, in 1954 the US Supreme Court in Brown vs Board of Education reversed the Plessy verdict, and a few years later laws made by the US Congress like the Civil Rights Act, 1964, the Voting Rights Act, 1965, the Fair Housing Act, 1968 etc considerably improved the conditions of blacks in America.

Now blacks cannot be legally discriminated against, and many of them have risen to high positions e.g. Barack Obama who became President of the USA in 2009 and was reelected in 2012. Many blacks are today highly educated. Many are in the US Congress, many are successful businessmen and businesswomen, scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, etc.

Of course, there is still some prejudice and discrimination against blacks in some areas of the USA, particularly in the South, and a few incidents from time to time like the killing of a black man, George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020 which resulted in widespread protests in America, even by whites.

However, I asked the group I was addressing, can there be any doubt that the condition of blacks has considerably improved since the days of slavery? Today a black man who has sex with or marries a white girl will not be killed, unlike in India where for a Dalit boy to fall in love with or marry a non-dalit girl often invites a death sentence ( called honour killing).

Having said all this, I told the group that like people of all countries, Americans too have made mistakes in the past. But they later realized their mistakes and rectified them. There is no doubt that  America is a great country, and Americans have made great contributions in science, technology, and other fields that have benefited the whole world.

Having concluded my speech, I said, ”Long live America! ”


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