Gray Panthers of San Francisco
November 2006 Newsletter

Zinn: It's Not Up to the Court


It’s Not Up to the Court

(excerpts from an article by Howard Zinn in The Progressive)

There is enormous hypocrisy surrounding the pious veneration of the Constitution and the “rule of law.” The Constitution, like the Bible, is infinitely flexible and is used to serve the political needs of the moment….When the Constitution gets in the way of a war, it is ignored.

When the Supreme Court was faced, during Vietnam, with a suit by soldiers refusing to go, claiming that there had been no declaration of war by Congress as the Constitution required, the soldiers could not get four Supreme Court justices to agree to even hear the case.

When during WWI, Congress ignored the First Amendment’s right to free speech by passing legislation to prohibit criticism of the war, the imprisonment of dissenters under this law was upheld unanimously by a Supreme Court which included two presumably liberal and learned justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis….

It would be naïve to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel and violate the law in order to uphold justice….

Congress gave no rights to working people. Workers had to ... create a great movement which won the 8 hour day and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, Social Security and unemployment insurance.


The Brown decision on school desegregation did not come from a sudden realization of the Supreme Court that this is what the 14th Amendment called for...It was the initiative of brave families in the south—along with the fear by the government obsessed by the Cold War that it was losing the hearts and minds of colored people all over the world—that brought a sudden enlightenment to the Court.


The right of a woman to an abortion did not depend on the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. It was won by grass roots agitation that forced states to recognize that right…

Rights...have not depended on decisions of the courts. Like other branches of the political system, the courts have recognized these rights only after citizens have engaged in direct action powerful enough to win these rights for themselves.


Our culture—the media, the educational system—tries to crowd out of our political consciousness everything except who will be elected President and who will be on the Supreme Court, as if these are the most important decisions we make. They are not. They deflect us from the most important job citizens have, which is to bring democracy alive by organizing, protesting, engaging in acts of civil disobedience that shake up the system.


No Supreme Court, liberal or conservative, will stop the war in Iraq, or redistribute the wealth of this country, or establish free medical care for every human being. Such fundamental change will depend, the experience of the past suggests, on the actions of an aroused citizenry, demanding that the promise of the Declaration of Independence—an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—be fulfilled.

(back to November 2006 Newsletter front page)