You Gotta Know These Supreme Court Cases Concerned with African-Americans
- Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) determined that people of African ancestry did not have the rights of citizens in the United States. Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken to Illinois and free parts of the Louisiana Territory before being brought back to Missouri, and claimed that being brought to free territory made him free. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that African-Americans were not citizens and thus did not have the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court. Taney’s ruling further found that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional under the Property Clause. President James Buchanan supported the Court’s decision in the case, which was delivered two days after his inauguration. This ruling was later overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) determined that state-imposed segregation was legal. Homer Plessy was seven-eighths white, but he was not allowed on a whites-only car on a Louisiana train. He claimed that forced segregation violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to “equal protection of the laws.” Justice Henry Brown wrote that segregation was acceptable as long as there was no clear difference in quality between the railway cars, which is often referred to with the phrase “separate but equal.” Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenter in the 8–1 decision; in his dissenting opinion, he stated “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind.” Plessy was effectively overturned by Brown v. Board of Education.
- Powell v. Alabama (1932) determined that defendants must be given legal counsel in a way that gives counsel enough time to do their job. This case was brought by nine young African-Americans, known as the Scottsboro Boys, eight of whom had been covincted of rape and sentenced to death. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause required states—in cases where the death penalty was a possibility—to inform defendants that they had a right to counsel, to appoint an attorney to represent defendants who could not afford one, and to do so in a manner that allowed the appointed attorney adequate time to prepare a defense (a requirement later expanded in Gideon v. Wainwright). Eventually, the rape victims recanted their story; some of the defendants were convicted anyways. Three years after ruling in Powell, the Court ruled in the related case of Norris v. Alabama (1935) that Black people could not be systematically excluded from juries.
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) determined that racially restrictive housing covenants could not be enforced by courts. Louis Kraemer was a white person in a white neighborhood in St. Louis that did not allow residents to sell their houses to African-Americans or Asian-Americans. The Shelleys were an African-American family that bought a house in the neighborhood. Chief Justice Fred Vinson determined that any state action enforcing the covenant would be discriminatory, and would therefore violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was decided 6–0, with three justices recusing themselves because they had racially restrictive housing covenants for their own houses. The creation of racially restrictive housing covenants was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. An important precursor to the Shelley decision was the 1940 case Hansberry v. Lee, brought by the father of Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) determined that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Brown was actually only one of a set of consolidated cases brought by African-Americans in multiple states, all of which were decided along with Brown. In all of those cases, African-Americans were turned down when they tried to enroll their children in white-only schools. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first Black Supreme Court justice, argued the case for the families. Though many lower courts ruled for the schools, based on the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote a unanimous decision stating that segregated schools are inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a ruling the next year, the Supreme Court determined that school integration should occur “with all deliberate speed.” This inexact wording led many districts in the South to stall the implementation of integration as long as possible.
- Bailey v. Patterson (1962) determined that African-Americans had the right to nonsegregated transportation services. This case was brought after the arrest of the Freedom Riders, who went to the South in 1961 to protest continuing segregation. Sam Bailey was an African-American civil rights activist who worked with Medgar Evers, and Joe Patterson was the Attorney General of Mississippi. The Supreme Court ruled per curiam that transportation services should already be unsegregated according to the law (calling the question “so well settled that it is foreclosed as a litigable issue”) and that the federal judiciary in Mississippi should enforce this.
- Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) determined that the United States could end racial discrimination in public accommodations. As soon as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Moreton Rolleston Jr. filed a lawsuit claiming that he was allowed to prevent African-Americans from staying at his motel. The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the Commerce Clause in Article I of the Constitution allowed the federal government to desegregate hotels and motels because those businesses are impacted by interstate travel, as part of a judicial trend over the 20th century which widened the scope of the Commerce Clause. The plot of land where the Heart of Atlanta Motel once stood is now occupied by the Atlanta Hilton.
- Loving v. Virginia (1967) determined that states could not ban interracial marriages, striking down anti-miscegenation laws. Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, who was African-American, in Washington, D.C. When the couple moved to Virginia, they were in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and they were told they would either have to spend a year in prison or leave the state. When that decision was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Virginia law violated the Fourteenth Amendment, as its only purpose was racial discrimination. The couple remained married and in Virginia. Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Mildred Loving died in 2008; the year before her death, she issued a statement of support for extending the ruling in Loving to allow same-sex couples to wed, as well.
- Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) determined that public systems could take race into account, but could not set specific racial quotas, in determining who, to admit to a university, thus upholding affirmative action. Allan Bakke was a white person who was rejected from the University of California Medical School at Davis. The medical school set aside sixteen positions each year for minorities, and Bakke contended that he was more qualified than the minorities. The decision was confusing, with Justice Lewis Powell being the only justice who was both for using race as a criterion and against quotas. Four other justices supported the use of quotas, and the remaining four were against all affirmative action. Bakke was admitted to the medical school; he eventually became an anesthesiologist in Minnesota.
- Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) determined that affirmative action programs whose purpose is to increase diversity are legal. Barbara Grutter was a white applicant to the University of Michigan Law School who was denied, and Lee Bollinger was the university president. On the same day, the Supreme Court ruled on Gratz v. Bollinger, which addressed undergraduate admissions at Michigan. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the undergraduate affirmative action program was unconstitutional because it was based on a point system rather than a holistic look at applicants. Together, these decisions were viewed as upholding the Bakke decision made earlier. These cases were later strengthened by two Fisher v. University of Texas cases, in 2013 and 2016. At the time of Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remarked “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer David Reinstein.