The Missouri slave, whose name is immortalized by that infamous court case we all heard about in school, was ultimately set free by his owner’s conversion to abolitionist views, mere months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Scott in 1857.
It’s interesting that Scott’s legal argument rested on what amounts to a technicality: that he and his family had, at various times, lived in states and territories where slavery was outlawed. If he had won, he would’ve secured freedom only for his family, and perhaps a few others. But in losing the case, Scott became a symbol for a better argument encompassing many more souls: that slavery was immoral and unconstitutional.
While the court ruled against him, the case became an anti-slavery rallying cry and a flashpoint for the Civil War, and has since become synonymous with racism and horrendous legal decisions. The prison walls of Scott v. Sandford, which ruled blacks non-citizens, and later Plessy v. Ferguson, which approved segregation, were never fully taken down until the Brown v. Board of Education decisions of 1954 and 1955, and the subsequent Civil Rights Act.
But if we recognize the Dred Scott name, what do we know of him? And how many people on the street can give you an intelligent answer about who he was?
So many decades later, Dred Scott was honored Wednesday with a bronze bust that will be displayed on the Missouri capitol’s third floor.
It’s about time.
His case was one of the links in the chain of this country’s awful institution of slavery. But more than that, Dred Scott fought for his freedom with the ultimate peace and civility, by relying on the courts. The legal system of the time let him down, but inadvertently raised him up for all ages to remember.
The ultimate victory was his.