WASHINGTON — Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds on Saturday said the Supreme Court was as much to blame for perpetuating slavery and racial inequality as were the authors of the Constitution.
Reynolds' remarks, delivered during a Vanderbilt University luncheon in Nashville, Tenn., came in response to criticism of the Founding Fathers by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Reynolds said Marshall is correct to point out the importance of the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, guaranteeing equal protection of the laws for blacks and whites.
But, he said, "we ought to respectfully decline" what he characterized as Marshall's invitation to consign the original Constitution "to the dustbin of history."
"It is one thing to be reminded of the compromise on slavery during the making of the Constitution. It is quite another, however, to encourage the view that there are two constitutions, the one of 1787, the other consisting of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment; that the old one is so thoroughly defective that it did not survive the Civil War and that the new one alone is worthy of celebration."
In a speech in Hawaii on May 6, Marshall noted that the original Constitution condoned slavery and denied women the right to vote.
Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division for the past six years, said there is no excuse for the original Constitution's failure to repudiate slavery.
"But we ought to recognize that on this issue, the framers were faced with a Hobson's choice," Reynolds said. "At least two of the states refused to consent" to ratifying the Constitution "unless the slave trade was protected."