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Jury discrimination in the South

July 26, 2010 -- The idea that juries should reflect the diversity of the local population has long been a cornerstone of the American justice system. But as Professor of History Chris Waldrep explains in his new book, a jury of one's peers is an ideal that hasn't always been realized in the courtroom. In "Jury Discrimination," Waldrep provides an historical analysis of why juries across the United States have been persistently Caucasian.

Book jacket for 'Jury Discrimination' which includes a photo of a courtroom

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, all-white juries have remained the norm in the South despite laws making discrimination during jury selection illegal. What made this possible, Waldrep says, is the way the Supreme Court defined jury discrimination and the evidence required to prove it.

"The Supreme Court set the bar so high that it was extremely difficult to prove jury discrimination," Waldrep said. "It was not enough to show that only white men had served as jurors in majority-black counties, and had done so for years. You really had to have a confession from the state officers responsible for appointing juries."

Waldrep traces how the long absence of African Americans in the jury box shaped the United States' racial history. "If the Supreme Court had set different rules, making it easier to prove discrimination, there might have been tens of thousands of black jurors throughout the nation at the time when whites were making and enforcing segregation laws," said Waldrep.

Photo of Professor Chris Waldrep

Professor Chris Waldrep

"Jury Discrimination" also tells the story of a remarkable lawyer in small-town Mississippi who argued a case before the Mississippi Supreme Court demanding the racial integration of juries. The efforts of Dabney Marshall resulted in blacks being admitted onto the jury pool for a brief period in 1906.

"If Dabney Marshall could do what he did when the odds were stacked against him, then change is possible," Waldrep said. "Jury discrimination is still with us today, but it is not unfixable."

Waldrep is the History Department's Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Endowed Chair and is a leading scholar on constitutional and legal history. For more information, visit: http://bss.sfsu.edu/waldrep/

"Jury Discrimination: The Supreme Court, Public Opinion and a Grassroots Fight for Racial Equality in Mississippi" was published in July by University of Georgia Press.


-- Elaine Bible


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