Whether the Bakke case becomes another Supreme Court landmark remains to be seen. But the crowds who gathered at the court yesterday clearly believed they were witnesses to history.
Not since the court ruled against Richard Nixon three years ago had there been such a scene. People waited throughout a chill October night for a chance at the few public seats inside. They carried placards and banners and cheered as their lines grew and wound down the marble steps and around the corner.
And all for an old reason, and an emotional cause - race.
What gave the day a special quality was somehow ironic. Passion is not supposed to be a nallmark of these times, and the great racial questions seemingly have been decided. Yet here was another case about race that has stirred emotions across the country.
But this time there was a critical difference. This time it was a white who claimed to be the victim of racial discrimination. This time it was a white who was denied admission to a public school with a special policy favoring blacks and other disadvantaged minorities.
It was as if the judgment of a generation stood on trial. Now, nearly a quarter of a century after the court's Brown public school desegregation ruling, a white was saying he was entitled under the Constitution to equal rights with minorities.
And behind these facts lay years of government rulings and laws affecting schools and business across the country. Affirmative action programs, minority business programs, mental health training grants programs and public works statutes are among the areas the government says could be affected by the way the court rules.
Perhaps these implications have been oversold. Perhaps the Bakke case will turn out to be something much less than what it has been billed - as the biggest civil rights case since Brown. But all these elements of momentous drama were present yesterday as the court convened at 10 o'clock to hear the arguments.
Adding to the sense of the unusual was the presence of Archibald Cox, whose name and figure were so associated with the Waltergate trauma and the time he was fired as the special prosecutor.
Cox, who has a way of speaking in magisterial tones, conveying heavy portents and fateful deliberations, was aruging the case against Bakke.
The representative of the government was not so well known, but he, too, filled a symbolic role. Wade McCree, the solicitor general, a post Cox once held during the peak of the civil rights period, is black. He referred to the Brown decision of 1954, and said minorities still have been denied fulfillment of the promise of that decision because of resistance."
And now, he said, minority children born in that year "are 23 years later the very persons knocking on the doors of professional schools."
They are also the very persons who, through special assistance, were granted places in medical school because of their minority and disadvantaged status - and whose presence denied Allan Bakke admission to that school.
Many Supreme Court hearings are dry, legalistic affairs. Yesterday's arguments rose above that order.
Cox, in his scholarly way, was an eloquent advocate. His opponent, Reynold Colvin of San Francisco, representing Bakke, was at times impassioned.
It was Cox who set the tone, and who began the arguments, before a courtroom filled to every corner. To accomodate the heavy crush, chairs had been placed in the corridors immediately off the chamber itself.
"This case," he said." . . . presence a single vital question: whether a state university, which is forced by limited resources to select a relatively small number of students from a much larger number of well-qualified applicants is free, voluntarily, to take into account the fact that a qualified applicant if black, Chicano, Asian or native American in order to increase the number of qualified members of those minority groups trained for the educated professions and participating in them."
These were the professions, he went on, "from which minorities were long excluded because of generations of pervasive racial discrimination."
The issue, as Cox drew it, was historic: "The answer which the court gives will determine, perhaps for decades, whether members of these minorities are to have the kind of meaningful access to higher education in the profession . . . or are to be reduced to the trivial numbers which they were prior to the adoption of minority admissions programs."
Cox did some nimble shadow-boxing around that emotionally charged term "quotas." What was at stake, he maintained, was "not a quota, at least as I would use that word." But he conceded, under questioning, that the system in effect did put a limit on the number of whites eligible for admission.
Colvin, Bakke's lawyer, argued just the opposite. His client, he told the justices, "was excluded from that school because that school had adopted a racial quota which deprived him of the opportunity for admission into the school. And that's where the case started."
Later, he said, in a rising voice: "Allan Bakke's position is that he has a right, and that right is not to be discriminated against by reason of his race. And that's what brings Allan Bakke to this court."
That may well be the legal reason for Allan Bakke's case being carried to the Supreme Court. But the historical reasons are far more complicated. The Bakke case represents the other side of our long and painful racial struggles, and the recent racial revolution that has wrought such changes in American life. It is, in part, a reaction to those events.
Sitting in the courtroom yesterday, surrounded by the trappings of that marble temple, you could hear some of the terms that have been argued over and over there. Such things as social purpose and rights of individuals were again being debated.
As Chief Justice Warren Burger gaveled the proceedings to a close precisely at noon, two hours after they began, the question was not over those issues. It was over what the court would do with them this time.