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Marching for Civil Rights, and the Legacy of a Judge Ahead of His Time

Arkansan Jacob Trieber, the first Jewish district judge in the U.S., handed down a landmark civil rights ruling in 1903. The fight continues over 100 years later in the NAACP’s ‘Journey for Justice’ march.

Barry Block
August 26, 2015

The first Jewish person to serve as a U.S. District Judge was an Arkansan named Jacob Trieber, who was appointed by President McKinley in 1900 and served until his death in 1927. In July, senators and congressmen from Arkansas introduced legislature to name the Federal Building in Helena, where Judge Trieber served, in his honor. Earlier this month, the U. S. Senate unanimously approved it. But Trieber’s legacy is worthy of further celebration, beyond his pioneering role as an American Jew on the federal bench.

More than six decades before Congress adopted landmark civil rights legislation, Trieber had already ruled that racial discrimination in employment was unconstitutional in the state of Arkansas. The year was 1903, a time when “whitecappers,” who would later morph into the Ku Klux Klan, harassed white business owners and farmers who employed African Americans. So, when employers fired black workers, the Department of Justice took up the workers’ cause. In 1903, a case called Hodges v. United States (originally called Maples v. United States) came before Trieber, who ruled in favor of the employees, finding that the 13th Amendment granted all Americans, irrespective of race, the “fundamental or natural” right to enter into contracts, including employment arrangements. In Trieber’s view, a conspiracy of whitecappers and employers had deprived African American employees of their constitutional liberty to earn a livelihood. Effectively, Trieber ruled that the Constitution prohibits racial discrimination in employment.

Sadly, in 1906, a regressive Supreme Court overruled Trieber, whose intended result wasn’t achieved until the Civil Rights of 1964. In a legal footnote dating to 1968, the Warren Court reinstated Trieber’s Hodges ruling.

I can only speculate at the extent to which Trieber’s Jewishness inspired his ruling in Hodges, if at all. While he is known for his important rulings on matters that ranged from migratory birds to prohibition to railroads, which he understood to be essential to interstate commerce, it should be noted that Trieber did not leave behind memoirs to explain the motivations behind his rulings. However, Carolyn Gray LeMaster, the late doyenne of Arkansas Jewish history, wrote, “As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work.”

This summer, Reform rabbis, who are members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, are joining the NAACP in its 860-mile “Journey for Justice” march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the dilution of civil rights in the half-century that has passed since landmark legislation was adopted in the 1960s. In addition to advocating for racial equality, Trieber was also an outspoken proponent of women’s rights. As a German immigrant and as a Jew, Trieber doubtless faced discrimination himself, even if he doesn’t seem to have discussed or written about his personal experiences in that regard. Perhaps he heard the prophetic call in the exhortations of his rabbis at both of his synagogues, Temple Beth-El in Helena and Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. I am honored to serve the latter as rabbi today.

Like Judge Trieber, who opined that Arkansas wouldn’t reach its full potential until it could marshal the talents of each of its citizens fully and equally, we march to declare that America cannot fulfill its promise until we end mass incarceration of African American males and restore universal suffrage as envisioned by those who framed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Justice requires us to acknowledge that the first African American wasn’t named to the federal bench until 1937, ten years after Judge Trieber’s death. Justice will be served when Judge Jacob Trieber’s name graces the Federal Building in Helena, Arkansas, where he served with distinction for 27 years. We march because, like Jacob Trieber before us, we recognize that we must proclaim that “black lives matter,” not because the lives of African Americans are of greater value than others. but because, in too much of America, black lives do not matter.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.