U.S. Supreme Court

Vox Populi: The Lewis Line

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Mike Sacks is guest-blogging at ABAJournal.com during his unique U.S. Supreme Court project, First One @ One First, which is to be first in line for politically salient arguments at the high court this term.

In November 1968, Jet magazine ran an item called “Black Chicago Firemen Organize Own League.” Co-founder Jim Winbush, then 27 years old, said that “the prime goal” of what’s now the African American Firefighters League of Chicago “is to increase the number of Negroes employed by the fire department.”

On Monday morning, Jim Winbush, now retired, stood in line outside the Supreme Court of the United States to support a younger generation of black Chicago firefighters in the fight that he began over 41 years ago.

“Someone told me there’s a fight here,” cracked the young-at-heart Winbush when asked what brought him out before dawn from Chicago to One First. That fight was Monday’s oral argument in Lewis v. City of Chicago, a case in which black firefighters hope the Court will remedy Chicago’s continued use of an entrance exam that the city conceded had carried a discriminatory disparate impact against minority applicants to Chicago’s fire department.

As the sun rose on that chilly morning, Winbush warmed his audience—lawyers, students, activists, firefighters, tourists—with stories from his firefighting days in Chicago. In 1965, Winbush followed his father’s footsteps into a segregated fire department, soon jarred by race riots and transformed by desegregation. A gifted raconteur, he lent levity to the high drama with hilarious impressions of former colleagues, many now dead and gone.

But when Winbush turned to the case that brought him to Washington that day, he became quite serious.

He spoke with exasperation over what he saw as the court’s undue sympathy for “reverse discrimination” cases such as last term’s Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the court sided with a group of predominantly white New Haven, Conn., firefighters who sued the city for throwing out an exam that would have disparately impacted minority firefighters.

“It’s amazing that folks who were actually discriminated against can’t win these cases,” Winbush said.

But Winbush’s grave pessimism soon gave way to fantastic optimism. With more than a hint of rascally sardonicism that at once betrayed his age and identified him with an earlier generation, Winbush said that he hoped to see Justice Thomas “get up and say, ‘How Long? Not Long! Mine Eyes!’ ”

Joseph Muhammad, a firefighter with the city of White Plains, N.Y., and president of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, held no such illusions.

“Thomas’s papers are already written,” he said. But Muhammad did not travel from New York simply to count the justices’ votes.

“We want to bring to the attention of American society that this isn’t an isolated case,” he said, naming New York, Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Fla., as areas facing similar issues as those before the court in Lewis. “It’s coming to a [fire] department near you.”

Many more firefighters and their families had arrived by the time the sun came up and the court police transported the line up the steps from the First Street sidewalk to the court’s plaza. These men and women from out of town marveled at the sun-soaked dome of the Capitol Building then turned around to take pictures of the court’s etched-in-stone promise of “Equal Justice Under Law.”

A few hours later, those who were lucky enough to see the oral argument spilled back out onto the plaza confident that the court had taken their side.

One can forgive Bill Winbush if he reserves his own judgment until the court hands down its final decision. He’s been around long enough to know that his hopes for more black firefighters in Chicago, a goal he set out to accomplish four decades ago, does not come easily. But that doesn’t mean he’s tired of hoping.

Win or lose in Lewis, the current batch of black firefighters have an indefatigable ally in their eternally youthful elder statesman.

“I’m here to follow this all the way through,” smiled Winbush.

Mike Sacks is a third-year law student at Georgetown University interested in legal journalism and the intersection of law and politics. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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