The US Supreme Court and Civil Rights: Mark Rathbone Looks at the Role of the Supreme Court in the History of Civil Rights in the USA from 1865 Onwards

By Rathbone, Mark | History Review, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The US Supreme Court and Civil Rights: Mark Rathbone Looks at the Role of the Supreme Court in the History of Civil Rights in the USA from 1865 Onwards


Rathbone, Mark, History Review


Think of civil rights in the USA and the campaigns of leaders like Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X spring to mind, together with the organisations they headed up, such as the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Certainly too the contributions of some US Presidents deserve a mention--Franklin D Roosevelt, whose Executive Order 8802 outlawed discrimination in government employment; Harry Truman, who desegregated the US Army; and pre-eminently Lyndon Johnson, who was responsible for a series of civil rights laws in the 1960s. But students of civil rights should not neglect the role of the US Supreme Court. It may appear an unlikely liberator, and at times its decisions held back progress towards greater civil rights, but without some crucial Supreme Court decisions the task for the civil rights movement would have been far harder.

The Landmarks: Plessy and Brown

The two best known Supreme Court cases are the 1896 decision in Plessy Ferguson and the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education.

Certainly Plessy was a landmark case that established the legality of 'Jim Crow' laws, which enforced segregation of public facilities across the southern states. The case was brought by Homer Plessy, a mixed-race Creole from New Orleans, who argued that Louisiana's Separate Car Act of 1890 was unconstitutional because it categorised users of public transport as black or white, a distinction which made no allowance for those of mixed race. The Court, however, declared that the provision of separate but equal facilities on public transport was constitutional as it was a matter for states, not federal authorities. The ruling also applied to other public facilities, including schools. Only one Justice, John Marshall Harlan, dissented from the majority view, agreeing with Plessy's view that any law which made a distinction between citizens on grounds of race was unconstitutional: 'Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.'

If Plessy was a setback to civil rights, 58 years later Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas was the catalyst for the massive expansion in the civil rights movement which took place in the 1950s and 1960s. This 9-0 Supreme Court ruling overturned the Plessy ruling, declaring that segregation in education was unconstitutional. In order to achieve a unanimous verdict, the Chief Justice Earl Warren made no mention of how compliance with the decision was to be brought about. The following year, however, in a second ruling, popularly known as Brown II, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation in schools must take place with 'all deliberate speed'. This phrase suggested a degree of urgency, but in fact the ruling was worded vaguely enough to enable many states to proceed with all deliberate slowness towards integration of their schools. Nevertheless, the ruling encouraged activists to protest against other forms of denial of Civil Rights, and to demand executive and congressional action.

The Precedents

The Brown decision did not come out of the blue. More than 20 years earlier the Court had shown its potential for advancing the cause of civil rights in the Scottsborough Case of 1932 and 1935. This concerned nine African American youths who were accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. The forensic evidence did not support the women's testimony, and one of the two later admitted that the whole story had been a fabrication. The boys were nevertheless convicted and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment. The Supreme Court ruled in 1932 that they had been denied proper legal representation in their original trial, and in 1935 that the exclusion of African Americans from the original jury had been unconstitutional. …

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