- In 1954 the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But that same year it also ruled in Berman v. Parker that government's power of eminent domain could be used to seize property in order to tear down "blighted" areas.
It soon became clear that too often urban renewal really meant "Negro removal," as cities increasingly razed stable neighborhoods to benefit powerful interests. That helps explain why 50 years later so many minority groups are furious at the Supreme Court's decision last month to build on the Berman precedent and give government a green light to take private property that isn't "blighted" if it can be justified in the name of economic development.
Within a week of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London, Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving member of the Congressional Black Caucus, pronounced himself "shocked" to be joining with conservatives in backing a bill to bar federal funds from being used to make improvements on any lands seized for private development. He noted that the NAACP, Operation PUSH and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights all believe "this court opinion makes it too easy for private property to be taken and [this is a practice] that has been used historically to target the poor, people of color and the elderly." The measure blocking federal funds passed the House by 231-189. A companion resolution condemning the Kelo decision was approved 365-33. Only 10 of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and only two members of the Congrssional Hispanic Caucus voted against the latter measure.
No one argues that struggling cities or states don't have a right to improve themselves through redevelopment. But the new civil-rights coalition forming in reaction to the Kelo decision says that need can't justify land seizures from which politically connected players stand to gain at the expense of individual civil rights. If the half-century since Brown v. Board of Education has taught us anything, it is that some rights are and must remain nonnegotiable.
Civil Rights and Eminent Domain
According to the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, eminent domain is a civil rights issue: