Civil Rights in Court

Article by Benjamin Waterfield. Edited by Robert Whitley. Additional Research by Hamish Rogers.

Thurgood Marshall- first African-American Justice

The Supreme Court of the United States was established by the US Constitution in 1789 to head the judicial branch of the new federal government. Despite its position as the fount of justice in American society, for decades the court was (rather ironically) central to one of the country’s greatest crimes – the discrimination of African-Americans. Following the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which allowed Southern states to implement racial segregation, entirely innocent Americans were punished for the colour of their skin. It is no coincidence then that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began its journey in the court room. The victories of lawyer Thurgood Marshall in the wake of the Second World War laid the foundations for the familiar tales of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and the eventual achievement of legally-enforced equality.

So how did the notorious Jim Crow laws come to exist? Certainly, the immediate period after the end of slavery showed great promise for ‘freedmen’. The Thirteenth Amendment was swiftly adopted following the end of the Civil War in 1865, formally outlawing slavery throughout the country. The Radical Republican Congress of the late 1860s then passed further amendments; the Fourteenth in 1868 granted American citizenship for the freedmen, making it a federal responsibility to protect their rights, and the Fifteenth in 1870 gave them the right to vote. Significantly, since these were amendments to the Constitution, it was the duty of the Supreme Court to uphold them.


Ku Klux Klan- Gainesville

But increasingly during the 1870s the federal government was unable to combat entrenched racial attitudes in the South, demonstrated most extremely through the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. By 1877 all of the Southern states had become firmly Democratic, as a result of the removal of federal troops and intimidation of black voters. This marked the end of the Reconstruction era, and of hopes for racial equality. This Southern Democratic coalition were known as the “Redeemers”, as they sought first to remove Republican influence from the South and then to reverse state legislation protecting the rights of the freedmen. From 1877 to 1910, the Southern states slowly but surely implemented measures segregating Southern society and disfranchising African-Americans. These became known as the Jim Crow laws (the phrase “Jim Crow” was a derogatory term meaning “Negro”).

On the topic of segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 confirmed that all citizens, regardless of race, were entitled to equal treatment in “public accommodations”, which at first glance appeared to prohibit racial segregation. However, a Supreme Court ruling in 1883 concerning five cases known as the Civil Rights Cases declared the act unconstitutional. While the Fourteenth Amendment forbid state governments of racial discrimination, it did not give Congress the power to outlaw discrimination by private individuals.


Jim Crow Car Cartoon by John McCutcheon (1904)

Furthermore, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1896 for the Plessy v. Ferguson case ensured segregation would be a fact of Southern life for decades. The ruling endorsed the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine, permitting segregation as long as equal standards were met. Simultaneously, Southern states were able to cunningly remove African-American voting privileges. This was achieved through a mix of residency requirements, literacy tests and taxes, as understandably the recently-freed slaves would begin at the very bottom of society. A resultant, and most likely calculated, by-product of this reality was that non-whites were no longer able to hold political office, eliminating a means of protest over such prejudice.

And so followed decades of racial inequality in the United States. Despite the clear indication of the “separate but equal” doctrine, in practice racial opportunities and experiences were far from equal. African-Americans were ghettoised and subordinated. This was not just an occurrence in the segregated South. De facto discrimination was an element of Northern society as well, particularly in housing firms and employment. But the fact that these circumstances were against the law, that they did not follow the Supreme Court’s constitutional safeguards, meant there was a foot in the door for African-American recovery. The formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909 was a sign of this hope. After the incredible upheavals of the New Deal and Second World War era, the taboo subject of segregation was propelled back into politics. Internal migration and greater prosperity led to stronger, more popular movements for change.

Rosa Parks

One of the NAACP’s major priorities was to challenge the deep-rooted “separate but equal” doctrine, and the best way of doing so was to confront it at its source, the US Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall was appointed Chief Counsel of the NAACP in 1940; what followed was an astonishing record of Supreme Court successes (29 of 32), like dominos falling on the way to civil rights. For example, in Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Marshall achieved the outlaw of Democratic all-white primaries and discriminatory housing firms respectively. Without doubt, the landmark case was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which effectively marked the end of “separate but equal”. The court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” as African-American children were found to be psychologically undermined by segregated schooling. It is no coincidence that civil rights activism rose considerably on the back of the decision. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which saw the emergence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., began just a year later. For ordinary African-Americans, such breakthroughs in court encouraged participation in the grass-roots, non-violent activism which characterised the triumphant civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The story of civil rights in the United States is indisputably intertwined with that of the Supreme Court. It was as much a story of legality and constitutionality as it was of the KKK or Martin Luther King Jr. The change in attitudes of the Supreme Court between 1896 and 1954, between Plessy and Brown, were the landmark moments of African-American civil rights. Unfortunately for those involved, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 respectively were a century in the making.

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