By Victor Ochieng
The ruling made in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case went down in history as one of the worst that the U.S. Supreme Court ever made. It’s a decision that has been cited so many times over the years for all the wrong reasons and it remains among the most heartbreaking in our country’s history.
March 6, 2017, marked the 160th anniversary of the infamous decision.
It happened that in 1830, Dred Scott’s master moved with him from Missouri to Illinois, a state where slavery was illegal. After staying there for six years, they returned to Missouri. Scott, an African American man tired of working as a slave, unsuccessfully tried several times to buy freedom for himself and his family. Seeing how challenging it was, he decided to sue his late master’s estate, hoping he’d win the case and secure his freedom. In his lawsuit, he argued that under the “Somerset Rule,” which basically means “once free, always free,” he was a free man when he moved with his master to Illinois and, therefore, he shouldn’t have been forced into slavery when they moved back to Missouri.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and the decision in it would definitely have far-reaching ramifications. Instead of the then Chief Justice Taney deciding the case on its simple terms, he decided to be more ambitious with it; he wanted to make a general ruling on slavery once and for all.
Everything in Taney’s ruling was infamous, but there was a part that was the most infamous, and that was the part that touched on the status of Black people. Taney ruled that a Black person, whether slave or free, couldn’t become an American citizen. He justified his decision by saying that, according to history, Blacks had always been “regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
That decision was and has always been infamous since its declaration. And during the ruling’s 160th anniversary, a descendant of Chief Justice Taney, Charlie Taney, rose up before the Maryland State House and delivered a clearly heartfelt apology to Scott’s descendants and Blacks in general on behalf of his family for the “terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”
Then it happened that Lynne Jackson, Scott’s great-great granddaughter, publicly accepted Taney’s apology on behalf of her family and on behalf of “all African Americans who have the love of God in their heart so that healing can begin.”
A platform that could have had bitter exchanges ended up being a reconciliation event and a foundation for forgiveness.