Montana judge’s actions provide an opportunity to confront the origins of America’s racial divide
John Conyers, ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, has called for hearings that could lead to the impeachment of chief federal district Judge Richard Cebull of Montana. Common Cause president Bob Edgar called for Cebull’s resignation last week. A New York Times editorial has now weighed in with a similar call. Cebull acknowledges having sent an email to friends with a racist “joke” about President Obama, suggesting that the president could well have been born from the union of a drunken white woman and a dog.
Whatever the future holds for the judge himself, the best broader outcome from these events would be congressional hearings or other national discussion about the country’s historic and ongoing racial segregation. Unless we can come to a national understanding of the public policies that have produced a segregated society, there is little chance of developing consensus around policies to address it.
Montana’s experience is on point. At a time when, as we have recently reported, racial segregation persists, and may even be intensifying, such discussion is urgently needed. It is unlikely that the country can address the twin and mutually reinforcing crises of economic and racial inequality if it fails to examine how we arrived at this juncture.
Few blacks now interact with Judge Cebull and his circle in Helena, Mont., or in the state as a whole. This is not because blacks never settled in Montana but because, early in the 20th century, African Americans in Montana and its neighboring states were forcibly removed by the formal and informal actions of public officials and an organized white community.
In Helena, Montana’s capital where Judge Cebull now holds court, there was a black literary society founded in 1906 that heard presentations by local black poets, playwrights, and essayists. The society’s weekly attendance of 100 was about as large as the entire black population of Helena today.
In that same year, Helena’s chief county prosecutor told a jury, “It is time that the respectable white people of this community rise in their might and assert their rights.” Such incitement was successful in Helena, elsewhere in Montana, and throughout the nation during the first few decades of the 20th century.
As blacks were driven from towns in Montana and elsewhere, a series of federal, state, and local policies reinforced their concentration in urban ghettos. The public has largely forgotten this history of segregation that has bequeathed us, in the words of a 1968 presidential commission, “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless we can come to a national understanding of the public policies that have produced a segregated society, there is little chance of developing consensus around policies to address it.
Read more on this issue in my commentary published earlier today.