“My Dear Sir”: A Modest Proposal to Build that More Perfect Union*

Letter from William M. Toomer to Judge John Parker, November 12, 1930. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library

I’m currently in the middle of a project examining Judge John J. Parker’s failure to get confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1930. A judge on U.S. Court of Appeals from the Fourth Circuit, Parker’s confirmation was doomed for a variety of reasons including opposition by organized labor and the NAACP, as well as good old-fashioned politics. Although Parker’s defeat in the U.S. Senate is mostly a forgotten footnote in history, I’ve found that it set the stage for today’s modern Supreme Court battles.

But this is not actually about Parker’s Supreme Court confirmation fight. Stick with me. I’m getting to the punchline.

To complete the project, I’ve been reviewing a treasure trove of documents from Parker’s papers housed by the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library.** In the course of my review, I happened upon a random letter to Parker dated November 12, 1930 from a lawyer in Jacksonville, Florida — William M. Toomer. Toomer was responding to a speech Judge Parker gave to the Michigan State Bar Association and was clearly impressed by Judge Parker’s analysis, opening his letter stating, “My Dear Sir…It is such a superb summing up of the best thought on the progress of society and the law…” So far, so good.

But eventually the letter goes off the rails. On page three, Toomer pivots to a point Judge Parker made about “the public’s unfriendly criticism of our [the legal] profession.” Well, William M. Toomer had a theory as to why the public does not have faith in the legal profession and a modest proposal to remedy the problem.

Toomer writes:

A portion of the Toomer letter.

It was shocking to read. But not because of the blatant antisemitism. It was his casualness in the manner of his approach— as if he were shooting the breeze with a friend, as opposed to a complete stranger who happened to be a federal judge.

An N-size of one is hardly a scientific study — it’s just one man’s letter to a judge about a speech. However, it stuck out in the sea of correspondence — especially given the recent release of the powerful new documentary by Ken Burns (of the Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball fame), Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, entitled The U.S. and the Holocaust.

Toomer’s letter is symptomatic of our nation’s complex, contradictory, and often-troubling official response (or lack thereof) to the growing antisemitism and systematic terror by the Nazis against Jews in the 1930s. The documentary exposes our history, not as black and white, but shades of gray — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As the documentary points out, Toomer was hardly alone in his assessment. Antisemitism wasn’t confined to the regions of Jim Crow or other “less enlightened” parts of the nation. In places like New York, Jews faced numerous challenges, like strict quota systems in higher education — even as the war was coming to an end in 1945.

Source: New York Times, February 7, 1945

As striking as Toomer’s language was, Judge Parker’s response may have been worse because of its deafening silence. Parker simply ignored Toomer’s diatribe. Parker didn’t send a brief courteous reply; it was a comprehensive response — except there was no mention of Toomer’s virulence towards Jewish lawyers.

Perhaps it was to avoid an uncomfortable interaction. Perhaps he agreed with Toomer. Either way, Parker let it pass. To be fair, Judge Parker was a complex individual (which I explore elsewhere) who was progressive in many ways for the time, and even served as an alternate member for the U.S. of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg after the war.

But Parker’s silence in this situation is how hate spins out of control — especially true in a time when Nazi domination of Europe was just on the horizon.

Judge Parker’s response. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library

Fast forward to today. These are turbulent times of economic anxiety and polarization, and antisemitism is rearing its ugly head. The Anti-Defamation League found that during 2021 there was a record number of antisemitic incidents in the United States — where assaults increased 167%.

The central question in documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust was, “Did the nation fail to live up to its ideals? This is a history to be reckoned with.” That question is as relevant in our continued march toward progress. We often fail to live up to the ideals of this nation. But we must try.

It’s collectively on us to try to realize the ideals of freedom and of equality on which this great nation is built. The U.S. and the Holocaust is a critically-important documentary because it requires us to wrestle with our demons and learn from the past. Let us strive to do better. The point is to make sure our past is not always prologue in our quest to build that more perfect union, for all.

Notes:

*In honor of Jonathan Swift.

** Thanks to the phenomenal Research and Instruction Services team at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library for their ongoing help and assistance.

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Policy expert. Into music. Former Chancellor of the State University of NY, Director of State Operations for NYS, & Chair of the NYS Reimagine Edu Commission.

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Jim Malatras

Policy expert. Into music. Former Chancellor of the State University of NY, Director of State Operations for NYS, & Chair of the NYS Reimagine Edu Commission.