February 25, 2014

Hoping to honor a pioneering civil rights plaintiff

The Inyo Register reports on plans to honor Alice Piper with a statue in front of Big Pine High School.  Piper was the successful teenage, Native American plaintiff in a segregated-schools case that the Supreme Court decided 90 years ago.  The court’s opinion didn’t go as far Piper wanted, but it was an incremental step forward for racial equality.

In Piper v. Big Pine School District (1924) 193 Cal. 664, the court reviewed a statute that in the same sentence gave school districts the authority both to “exclude children of filthy or vicious habits, or children suffering from contagious or infectious diseases” and also to “establish separate schools for Indian children and for children of Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian parentage.”  If a school district established separate schools for those students, the statute provided that the children “must not be admitted into any other school.”

Piper challenged the constitutionality of the statute after the school district excluded her from its high school because “she is a person of Indian blood” and because the federal government maintained a nearby school for “members of the Indian race.”  The Supreme Court balked at taking on the then accepted separate-but-equal judicial philosophy:  “The establishment by the state of separate schools for Indians, as provided by the statute, does not offend against either the federal or state Constitutions. Questions of racial differences have arisen in various forms in the several states of the Union and it is now finally settled that it is not in violation of the organic law of the state or nation, under the authority of a statute so providing, to require Indian children or others in whom racial differences exist, to attend separate schools, provided such schools are equal in every substantial respect with those furnished for children of the white race.”

However, despite its acceptance of segregated schools in principle, the court did grant Alice Piper the relief she requested because there was no adequate separate school available to her.  The federal school didn’t qualify because it was not under state control.  The court held that excluding Piper from the district’s high school with no available separate school would deprive her of her educational rights under the state constitution that, the court said, declares “the advantages and necessities of a universally educated people as a guaranty and means for the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.”  The court said that those rights applied to Piper because, among other things, “[s]he is the descendant of an aboriginal race whose ancient right to occupy the soil has the sanction of nature’s code.”

The statue honoring Piper and her historic lawsuit is only in the planning stages and the school district is seeking funding for the project through Kickstarter.  The superintendent makes a compelling case on video for donations.

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