Like Martin Luther King Jr., law professor Theodore Shaw said he likes to believe the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.
However, Shaw, a constitutional scholar and director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, said he is “very much fearful for our country” under President-elect Donald Trump, who he said represents an “existential threat” to democracy.
“We’ve just elected somebody who wouldn’t know the Constitution if he tripped over it,” Shaw told about 60 people during a 50-minute speech Monday at Oberlin College’s Dye Lecture Hall. “Our Constitution, our nation, our principles, what we believe in, these things are about to be tested. We’re about to find out if we can endure in an era where our country is led by somebody who I think fails to believe in the basic principles that are part of our Constitution and part of our country.”
Shaw said he was troubled by Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist. Bannon formerly ran Breitbart News, an anti-Semitic and white supremacist website whose headlines included references to a “renegade Jew” and praise for the “glorious heritage” of the Confederate Flag.
Shaw said he was also concerned about a Trump surrogate discussing a registry for Muslims in America and mentioning the Supreme Court decision that allowed for internment camps that Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in during World War II.
And Shaw criticized Trump’s pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for U.S. attorney general. Sessions was rejected by Congress for a federal district court judgeship in 1986 after being accused of calling a black prosecutor “boy,” which Sessions denied. Sessions testified he couldn’t remember whether he agreed with a judge who said a white prosecutor was a “disgrace to his race” for defending blacks.
As Alabama attorney general in 1985, Sessions unsuccessfully prosecuted civil rights activist and King ally Albert Turner on voter fraud allegations. As a senator, he said the 1965 Voting Rights Act was “intrusive legislation.”
In addition to voting rights, Shaw said the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that everyone born in America is a U.S. citizen is in jeopardy under Trump. Trump last year said that children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who are here illegally aren’t citizens. He said the 14th Amendment doesn’t guarantee citizenship and could be overturned by Congress.
The amendment says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” It was passed after the Civil War to guarantee the rights of former slaves and their children.
Shaw noted Trump has supported torturing terrorism suspects and said all constitutional rights are “up for grabs”” under Trump, who has said he will nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of Judge Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Scalia was an “originalist” who believed the Constitution should be interpreted by the standards of 1789 when it was adopted.
Shaw, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a former Department of Justice attorney, disagrees. He helped craft affirmative action rules for student admissions while at the University of Michigan that were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003 and said the Constitution isn’t a document “frozen in time” — it’s evolved.
He noted the Constitution allowed slavery until passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 after the Civil War and didn’t permit women to vote until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.
Shaw, 62, was supposed to speak on Constitution Day on Sept. 18, but was unable to make it that day. He was chosen due to his his long record of defending civil rights and his “tenacious brand of leadership,” said Sandhya Subramanian, the college’s vice president, general counsel, and secretary.
Shaw said he would’ve made a far different speech in September when it appeared Democrat Hillary Clinton would be elected president. He said Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov asked him to try to accentuate the positive in his speech, but it’s difficult to do so after the election.
Shaw’s speech was entitled “America on the Precipice, Civil and Human Rights and the Battle for the Soul of Our Nation.” Shaw said constitutional rights supporters face an uphill battle but must not quit.
“When you do that, you might as well lay down and die,” he said. “We have to be engaged in a struggle and a fight against those who would trample all over this document.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Professor Theodore Shaw, director of The Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, spoke Monday at Oberlin College. He held up a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution during a portion of his remarks, saying President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t respect constitutional rights and is a danger to democracy.