Home > History, Human Rights, Politics > Supreme Failure: How the Supreme Court Stopped the Civil Rights Movement in The 19th Century.

Supreme Failure: How the Supreme Court Stopped the Civil Rights Movement in The 19th Century.

"For Colored" bathroom sign, old Col...

Image by Trevor Huxham via Flickr

February has been a really busy month; among the furor created by the Rethuglicans push to kill union labor and all the rioting in the Middle East and North Africa, I think most of us has forgotten that it’s Black History Month. This post gives a brief (sort of) synopsis of how equality did not come to African Americans for almost 100 years after the Civil War ended. The Supreme Court of the late 19th century managed to abolish or weaken every Civil Rights law passed, which enabled the south to introduce Jim Crow laws and return to their previous years of oppression. Incidentally, these Jim Crow laws were the model for the Nuremburg Laws, German legislation against Jews passed by the Congress of the Nazi Party in 1935. 

When the Civil War ended, over 4 million former slaves were looking forward to the promise of equality and job opportunities. For a brief period, it looked as though their prayers had been answered. By 1870 the Republican Party had managed to pass three constitutional amendments that gave them legal equality and access to public office, as well as the federal courts. 

The 13th amendment, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1865, abolished slavery. The 14th amendment of 1868 gave blacks citizenship and equal protection under the law. In 1870 the 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote. Equality it seemed had finally come to the United States. That is if you didn’t count women, Native Americans or Asians, who were still discriminated against. 

The goal was to successfully integrate these 4 million freedmen into mainstream society.However, thanks to President Andrew Johnson, who was infamous for his blatant racism, and the Supreme Court which declared the Civil Rights act of 1875 unconstitutional, as well as giving state and local government the sole power to enforce the 14th amendment, equality for blacks became virtually non-existant.

After the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional, every single southern state would redraft their constitutions to make voting by blacks almost impossible. By 1890, states were passing laws enforcing segregation, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessey v. Ferguson in 1896. It was ruled that “de jure” or “separate but equal” segregation was not a violation of African American civil rights, but was for their protection. 

These Jim Crow laws not only kept blacks in the south from voting and subjected them to segregation. They allowed racism to run rampant in the south with impunity, and reduced the black population to virtual slavery once again. Most blacks could do little more than stay on the land that they were once enslaved to, and scratch out meager livings as share croppers for their previous masters. 

While African Americans would consistently challenge segregation and other Jim Crow laws, it was not until 1948 that he first blow for equality would be dealt. Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the armed forces. This order would be the flash point that would energize the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s. The next defining moment would be in 1954; the year that Brown v Board of Education Topeka was heard by the Supreme Court. In its landmark decision, “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional and struck down. 

When Rosa Parks decided to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, her actions would stimulate a long series of boycotts, demonstrations and court battles that undermine Jim Crow. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson would push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through congress which outlawed discrimination in public places once and for all. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 would remove any and all barriers preventing blacks from exercising their right to vote. In 1967 the Supreme Court declared any anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, and allowed blacks inter-racial marriage.

 Thanks to the corruption of government and the Supreme Court, as well as rampant racism across the country, oppression of African Americans would legally continue for another 100 years. While there were countless heroic moments in the Civil Rights Movement, the bitch of it is that we still see the same bigotry and oppression today, thanks to the Rethuglicans and tea party terrorists. Their message is that everyone is equal, as long as you hold power, wealth, and prestige. Otherwise you can go pound salt. Equal rights can never be a dead issue, as long as there are those who constantly try to keep us under foot to further their own agendas, we need to fight on. Maybe some day we really will have equality for all.  

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