45 Years in Law and Civil Rights; Many of the Greatest Battles in the War on Discrimination Were Waged in Court

By Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. | Ebony, November 1990 | Go to article overview

45 Years in Law and Civil Rights; Many of the Greatest Battles in the War on Discrimination Were Waged in Court


Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr., Ebony


45 Years In Law And Civil Rights

Many of the greatest battles in the war on discrimination were waged in court

TO GIVE some perspective to the changes of the last half century, let me recall an April 1937 incident involving Arthur Mitchell of Chicago, who was then the sole Black member of Congress. Congressman Mitchell was on a train journey from Illinois to Arkansas. When the train left Memphis, Tenn., the conductor ordered him to leave the first-class section. Mitchell protested that he had paid for a first-class ticket and that he was a congressman. The conductor replied that his position "did not make a damn bit of difference," since no "nigger" could ride in that car.

Even though Congressman Mitchell knew that he had the legal right to remain in the first-class section, he also knew that in Arkansas "sometimes they don't keep them in jail for trial down there, but they take them out and lunch them." He thought that "being the only Negro in Congress, I'd better not be lynched on that trip." Congressman Mitchell retreated to the second-class "colored" coach. He later sued the railroad, eventually obtaining a favorable Supreme Court ruling. However, it was not until November 1945--the month that EBONY began publication--that the railroad finally settled the case for the sum of $1,250.

It is ironic that the Mitchell case occurred in Arkansas, in the state John Johnson left for Chicago to start his protest against racial injustices throughout America. The Mitchell case exemplifies the discriminatory milieu into which EBONY was born.

The Supreme Court: An Amalgam of Individual Justices with Varying Views

Although the Supreme Court proclaims itself to be a neutral institution, unaffected by outside forces, many of the Court's critical civil rights decisions of the last 50 years have been shaped by external events, including political elections, wars abroad, and periods of intense protests or apathy at home. The evolution of American race relations law also reflects the increasingly strident demands for basic human rights made by oppressed people in the United States and throughout the world.

The nature of a Supreme Court decision also depends upon the sheer coincidence of appointments of justices during the terms of particular president--including those who have long since left the White House. Every Supreme Court decision is a curious amalgamation of the judicial philosophies of the Court's nine justices. For better or worse, the Court's civil rights decisions may be affected by a president's appointees decades after the president's departure from the White House. Justice McReynolds, one of the most bigoted justices in Supreme Court history, was appointed by President Wilson in 1914 and was still participating in critical civil rights cases during the second and third terms of President Roosevelt. Justice Brennan's distinguished tenure over the past 33 years spanned the terms of seven presidents who came into office after his appointment by President Eisenhower. Justice-designate David Souter may be on the Court even after the year 2020.

In this article, I will examine the evolution of race relations law during the tenure of the five Supreme Court chief justices since 1941.

Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (1941-1946)

Harlan Fiske Stone was appointed chief justice by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941. He presided over the Court as millions of Black and White Americans fought in foreign lands against racist philosophies which most Blacks also faced at home.

One of the most insidious barriers in the South was the exclusion of Black voters from Democratic state primary elections. In the essentially one party states, the winner of the Democratic primary almost always won the later general elections. In 1944, the Supreme Court finally struck down the all-White primary. Although its impact was not felt immediately, the ruling was a critical step in the long journey to assure full voting rights for Blacks. …

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45 Years in Law and Civil Rights; Many of the Greatest Battles in the War on Discrimination Were Waged in Court
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