A Christmas Gift for the Supreme Court: How a 1959 Holiday Party Eclipsed a History of Discrimination
Green Bag 2d, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 311-354, Spring 2014
45 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2014 Last revised: 12 Jun 2014
Date Written: June 10, 2014
On December 28, 1959, the New York Times published a little news item that was, in hindsight, both (1) a public relations triumph for Banning E. “Bert” Whittington, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Press Officer at the time, and (2) a jurisprudential and institutional relief for the Court. COURT DEFIES PRECEDENT: “One of the last institutions holding out against the Christmas Party succumbed last week. The Supreme Court had a pleasant but sober affair arranged by its press officer, Banning E. Whittington. Five of the Justices – Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan Jr. and Potter Stewart – joined the small staff of employes. There were fruit punch, cookies and carols by a high school group, with some audience singing, too.” The story has a tone that should ring familiar in the ears of modern consumers of Supreme Court news reporting: good-natured indulgence of that somewhat dull, somewhat behind the times, somewhat culturally clueless wallflower among our great institutions of national government. But the background to that story suggests that the Court was not at all clueless in 1959. Indeed, the Court’s handling of that Christmas party, and the Times coverage of it, may have helped the Court occupy the high ground during its continuing campaign in the 1960s against racial discrimination.
Keywords: civil rights, desegregation, The Docket Sheet, law clerks, New York Times, Public Information Office, racial equality, secretaries, Supreme Court press corps, Fred Vinson, Stanley Reed, Robert Jackson
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation