BY PHONG LY
Drake University planned a celebration in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Iowa Supreme Court landmark case Clark v. Board of Directors last week from Sept. 25-28.
The celebration began with the Cole Hall Rededication, which took place in Kern Commons, Cartwright Hall, featuring the presentation of a governor’s proclamation read by Iowa State Senator Jack Whitver in honor of the case’s anniversary. There was also the unveiling of artwork designed for the celebration. There were remarks made by Marty Martin, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, Drake law student Brinet Rutherford and Professor Emeritus of Law David Walker. Drake Choir also performed at the event.
On Thursday, Sept. 27 the talk titled “The Iowa Constitution: An Enduring Testament to Equality” took place in Hubbell Hall at Simpson College. On Friday, Sept. 28 the Clark 150 Conference occurred in Cartwright and Sheslow Halls at Drake and closed with the banquet in Parents Hall.
The Clark 150 Conference’s sessions discussed the Clark v. Board of Directors decision in the framework of the historic civil rights decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court, the ongoing relevance of the Clark case, issues of the criminal justice system in the state of Iowa and creating quality education for all Iowans.
“Iowa is the first state to take this position in 1868,” said Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College and the first keynote speaker of the event in his speech on Friday. “Iowa leads the way in the Clark case. Clark leads Iowa, and Iowa leads the nation. But Iowa is not unique, there is a whole line of cases in Michigan that do the same thing; some of them even cited the Iowa case.”
In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Susan Clark, a 12-year-old African-American girl, could not be denied admission to her neighborhood public school in Muscatine, Iowa because of her skin color. The court was the first to declare “separate but equal” unconstitutional under the equality provisions of the Iowa Constitution. The decision was 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued the same ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Finkelman also mentioned cases with the same outcome following the decision of the Clark case, including a case in Nebraska in 1906 in which a barber loses a suit in which he refused to cut the hair of a black man and a case in Michigan involving a restaurant that discriminated against black customers.
The rest of the conference held three different panel sections, each one tying the result of the Clark case to different issues that the state of Iowa is still facing today. This include the racial disproportional reality in Iowa’s Criminal Justice System due to implicit bias and quality education for all.
On the issue of racial disproportionality in the justice system, Thomas Newkirk, one of the partners of the Newkirk Zwagerman Law Firm in Des Moines, stated in his panel speech that African-Americans are arrested for drug usage more frequently than Caucasians even when they use drugs at the same rate.
“Judges are sentencing black offenders four to eight months longer than white offenders for the same damn crime,” Zwagerman said. “Is this racist, maybe, or maybe there is bias in their decision-making and no one is watching their ends of it when they are making decisions about the future of African-Americans.”
The President of the Iowa-Nebraska National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) State Area Conference of Branches, Betty Andrews, also made an appearance at the Clark conference as one of the speakers. She encouraged the audience to “take action” with specific means rather than simply with words.
“Taking action is talking about it, is keeping these conversations alive, is making sure that you are telling your story to the people that have been affected by this,” Andrews said. “It is also making sure that when you are having these conversations you are talking to the right people.”