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Sharp's ‘rise' above racism

Chief Justice Susie Sharp was many things: outstanding lawyer, pioneering female judge, first woman to become chief justice of a state supreme court, passionate keeper of a complicated love life and lifelong racist.

As Anna Hayes makes clear in her admiring yet critical biography “Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp,” she grew up with and maintained early 20th century white attitudes about black people throughout her career. Yet she also empathized with many of their hopes and dreams – better education, decent homes, stable jobs – except for one: a desegregated society.

She thought the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down the separate-but-equal schools doctrine, a “calamity” that would test support for the rule of law.

Ugly attitude about race

Yet she also opposed the segregationist gubernatorial campaign of I. Beverly Lake Sr. in 1960 and issued decisions that chipped away at the Jim Crow society that prevailed at mid-century.

I was struck by Sharp's handling of those cases, and how her own ugly attitudes about black people – she once referred to them as “animals” in a coded diary entry that the author deciphered during her research – must have made it all that much harder for her to side, as she often did, with the rule of law over long-ingrained racist convictions. In a 1948 speech she admitted that “race prejudice is bad because all prejudice is bad.…. It is one thing to have a feeling and it is quite a different thing to allow it to have full sway over one's conduct. We don't have to like a person to give him justice; it's harder to do but it can be done.”

And I wondered how a generation of aging voters this fall will handle those old impulses as they fill out ballots in the presidential election that presents the first real opportunity for an African American to become chief executive.

Susie Sharp never overcame her racial impulses, as Hayes points out: “Despite her convictions that both the principles of justice and enlightened self-interest mandated fair treatment for black Americans, she never overcame her racism on a visceral level, remaining a prisoner of her upbringing.”

But she was able to make decisions that opened up opportunities and diminished the official layers of segregation that so limited what minorities could do and where they could go, Hayes noted.

The first of those occurred in a case in Charlotte in 1956 when Sharp was a special superior court judge, handling trials around the state. Charlotte's only municipal golf course, Hayes wrote, was part of a public park whose land had been donated with the provision that if any of it were ever used by Negroes, the property would revert to the donor. The golf course wasn't a part of the donated property, but it would go back to the donor if minorities used it. This was the old Bonnie Brae course, renamed in the 1970s Revolution Park Golf Course.

Constitutional grounds

As early as 1952 a group of black citizens had challenged the reversion clause, but it survived a trial, the N.C. Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1956, civil rights lawyer Spottswood Robinson of Virginia, who had worked on the Brown case and later became a distinguished federal appellate judge, challenged it again, arguing that it violated 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the law.

Sharp didn't like him or the case, but she so strongly believed in the rule of law that “I think the court has no alternative but to grant the injunction,” she wrote to a law professor. Still, she fumed over the circumstances, and asked Robinson in court if the opening of another golf course to black players would be satisfactory – knowing in advance that his answer would be no, Hayes wrote.

Sharp then wrote, “But I made him say that nothing but Bonnie Brae would satisfy them and that the city's loss of 60 acres of valuable park land meant nothing to him…. and them. I could feel his hatred and I had the impression that he could feel mine because I had to grant him the injunction but despised having to do so. Perhaps I imagined it all, but I think the undercurrents in court that day were really shock waves…. [W]asn't it the irony of fate that I, who would almost have preferred to close it down, had to order the course opened to them.”

There were other cases Sharp handled that dismantled the old segregated system, including an important Beaufort County schools case.

‘Far from the worst'

Hayes noted that Sharp, who died in 1996, was “far from the worst” in her racial attitudes, but “her failure to grow into a broader understanding on race was perhaps her greatest personal failing, viewed across her lifetime.”

Still, she went on, “it is the very prevalence of racism during her times that illuminates Judge Sharp's ability to rise above her own racism in her political and judicial roles. Her steadfast belief in the rule of law and her comprehension of the imperatives of North Carolina's future outweighed her racial prejudice… To her, the rule of law was ... sacrosanct.”