The American Civil Rights Movement: The Law

Figure 1.--

Law throughout history has been a central issue in any civilization. It has been a force for both good and evil. Perhaps Rome's greatest contribution towrd civilization is law. Yet Rome was a civilization based on military power and slavery. A key component in the emergence of Europe and America as modern successful nations had been the rule of law. The law in America for four centuries has been used to supress minority groups, especially blacks. Perhaps the most distressing decession in the history of the Supre Court was the Dread Scoitt decession. Only with the New Deal in the 1930s did laws and court decessioins begin to offer blacks real legal protection. The turning point in this strugglke was the Suopreme Court Brown v. Topeka which struck down segregation in public schools (1954). There have, however been many important laws and legal decession both before and after.

Joseph Hanno Trial (1721)

The trail of Joseph Hanno for murder was paerhaps the first important trial involving blacks in the United States

The Great Negro Plot (1741)

Another sensational trial involved the so-called Great Negro Plot to burm Manahattan.

James Somerset Trial (1772)

Another land mark case was the legal efforts by James Somerset to win his freedom.

Prudence Crandall

Another legal milestone was the effort by Prudence Crandall to establish a school for "little misses of color".

The Debate Over Slavery

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 2/3s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

The Amistad Affair (1839-41)

Portuguese slavers loaded a cargo of 500 captive Africans on the slaver Teçora at Lomboko on the Gallinas River in modern Sierra Leone (April 1839). They managed to elude Royal Navy patrols. The ship's records note that about 200 of the captive Africans perished during the 2 month voyage. The slavers landed their surviving cargo at Havana, Cuba for sale to sugar planters (June 1939). At Havana 49 adult Mende tribesmen and four children from the Tecora were secretely loaded on the schooner Amistad (June 23). They were to be delivered to Puerto Principe for labor on sugar plantations. [Jones] The Africans led by Joseph Cinqué managed, however, to seize control of the ship (July 2, 1839). The mutneers killed the crew except for two men who the Africans needed to sail and navigate the vessel and two sailors who escaped in a lifeboat. T. They demanded to be taken back to their homes in Africa. They mutineers knew nothing about sailing and the ship’s navigator deceived them about the course he set. Strangely rather than putting into a southern port, he ploted a course north along the coast of the United States to Long Island, New York. There the schooner was seized off Long Island by the USS Washington operated by the United States Revenue Cutter Service (August 26). The Africans who were described as Cubans were initilly judged to be salvage and were transported to Connecticut to be sold as slaves. A case before the Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut, was filed (September 1839). Slavery was still legal in Connecticut, although not widespread. The Africans wee charged with mutiny and murder. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because the alleged acts occurred on a Spanish-flag ship in Spanish waters as Cuba was a Soanush colony. This began the complicaed legal process. Various parties filed property claims the captives, the ship, and the cargo The British entered the picture because they had a treaty with Spain abd argued that the Amjistad Afrucabs should be set free, n eliminating the slave trade soThe Van Buren Administration mindful of the need to carry the Southern states in the up coming 1840 election attempted to return the Africans to Cuba. The issue became more complicated when it was discovered that they were not Cubans, but Africans. While slavery itself was legal in the United States and Cuba, the slave trade was illegal. This thus called into question the status as slaves. The ensuing court proceedings and diplomatic maneuverings that resulted energized the fledgling abolitionist movement in the United States. Former president John Quincey Adams took up the cause of defending the Africans. The First Congregational Church, Thomaston, Connecticut raised money for the Amistad captives (1840). Both the Cuban buyers and Queen Queen Isabella II of Spain claomed ownership. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court as United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, commonly cited as U.S. v Amistad (1841). The high court ruled that that the Africans had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and ordered them freed. The Amistad survivors were eventually returned to Africa (1842).

The Dread Scott Case (1857)

Dred Scott (1847- ) was a Missouri slave whose owner took him to Illinois and then to Wisconsin Territory, free teritory. His owner took him back to Missouri. After his owner died, Scott sued his new ower, claiming tht since he was taken to a free state, he was no longer a slave (1847). After years of litigation, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Taney Court decided to hear the case. The Court decided that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit. The Court, however, went on to say much more. Blacks could not be U.S. citizens. The court clearly stated that the Federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. The Court also ruled that Congress could not outlaw slavery anywere in America. This in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise, the cornerstone law which had defused the slavery issue. The South was elated at the decission. The North was apalled. It meant that there was no legal (constitutional) way of dealing with the issue of slavery. It also essentially extended slavery to northern states that had abolished it. It gave lie to Southern arguments that slavery was a matter of state's rights.

Trial of John Brown (1859)

Lee transported Brown and the others captives to Charlestown. There he was tried. Brown had to be carried into his trial. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Brown's statements during the trial and letters after sentencing were widely reported in the press and distributed in the abolitionist press. Brown became a virtual saint among northern abolitionists.

The Civil War (1861-65)

The "2/3s clause" in the Constitution gave the South the political power in Congress that protected slavery. Had the South remained in the Union, slavery was virtually impossible to abolish. The abolishionists were a viocal, but small pat of the american electorate. The Abolistioinists did, however, provide the support for the Underground Railroad that began to bleed the South of slaves. Abolistionistrs also inflamed the slave South to the point that they madev the decession to seceed. Thus with the outbreak of the Civilm War and 11 southern slave states no longer represented in Congress, legal action to attack slavery was finally possible.

Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the key documents in American history. Not other document except perhaps the Declaration of Independence had a more revolutionary impact on America. It was certainly the most revolutionry document ever signed by an American president. The Proclamation itself was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (September 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the border states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural.


After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government despite Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They resstricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal challenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

The Lost Cause

"The Lost Cause" was a historical myth which persisted for many years in American history. The Civil War in the minds of most northerners had bee fought to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Racism was not a belief prevalent only in the South. After Reconsnstruction there was no real Federal action to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South or to prevent terroist activities perpetrated by the KKK. The KKK was even established in northern states like Indiana. Southern historians with anti-Black bias established the Lost Cause myth. This was largely accepted even in the North, in large part because of the widly held rascist attitudes of most white Americans at the time. The historical myths went largely unchallenged except by scholars like W.E.B. Dubois, who was not given scholarly recognition at the time. The historical myths of the Lost Cause were not seriously chasllenged by academics until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Jim Crow

The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacks were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting.

Plessy v. Fergusson (1898)

The Fight for an Anti-Lynching Law

The Scottsboro Boys

World War II

American factoiries began expanding production when war broke out in Europe creating many new jobs. At first Blacks were excluded from most of these jobs. A. Philip Randolph, heads of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, began planning a march on Washington for jobs in 1941. He used the threat of such aarch to get President Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting racial descrimination in the expanding war industries. [Bass] The United States went on to fight World War II with a seggregated military. Blacks and Whites kept in separate units. Blacks were normally used in support roles. Segregationists advanced the theory that Blacks were not capable soldiers. Elenor Roosevelt stringly supported an experiment forming two units of Black airmen, known today as the Tuskegee Airmen, after the Alabama college where they trained. Althoiugh Southern Congressmen tried to kill the program, the two units proved to be in part two of the most effectuive units in the Army Air Corps. This was in part because the opponents of the program, put such strict limits on it that the men involved were of especially high caliber. Many Black soldiers wondered about fighting racist NAZI Germany when they faced racism at home. (Many of the early NAZI actions against the Jews in Germany were based in on American Seggregation laws.)

Legal Challenge

Walter White at the NAACP brought Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) into the organization. Gouston was the grandson of fugative slaves who escaped north. Although his name is not widely known outside the Civil Rights movement, he is one of the most important lawyers in American history. He devoted his career to undoing the Plessy decission which served as the nasis for Jim Crow in the South. Houston worked tireslessly toward that end. Houston was the legal mastermind behind the NAACP's challenge to segregation after World War II. He was appointed dean of the Howard University Law School in 1939 and in effect trained an entire generation of Civil rights lawyers. He told his students that a lawyer "is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society". He was tough and extremely demanding on his students, but in the end turned out lawyers that proved more than a match for the White lawyers from prestigious Southern universities. It was Huston who recruited Thurgood Marshall. Marshall led a small team of brilliant lawyers, many trained at Howard University, which honed in on the school segration issue at a time when many thought the movement should focus elsewhere, such as lynching, marriage laws, and other issues. Later after Marshall's victory in the Brown decission, Marshall remarked, "We were only carrying (Houston's) bags, that's all."

President Truman

President Truman prepared the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement when he desseggregated the military (1948). His court appointments were also critical to the Civil Rights movement. These and other steps which led directly to the landmark Supreme Court Brown decission.


The Supreme Court (1954)

The land-mark Supreme Court decission that turned the tide in the Civil Rights struggle was Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka. Several similar cases were united for consideration by the court. The best known is the Brown case which concerned Linda Brown, a little Black girl in Topeka, Kansas. There were also cases from the South, including one from South Carolina. The state of South Carolina realising that the Seoarate but Equal doctrine could be challenged by the obvioius inequality of Black and White schools, had embarked on a major building ptogram to construct Black schools. Thurgood Marshall decided to persue the principle that separate schools were inherently unequal. Chief Justice Earl Warren carefully guided the Court so that a unanimous verdictv was reached. President Eusenhower who had earlier opposed deseggregatioin of the military was to later say that his appointment of Warren was the biggest mistake he made as president.

School Desegregation

The Supreme Court decission in Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka made school segregation illegal. But the Court had no powers of enforcement. President Eisenhower was not pleased with the decission. (He had opposed desegregation of the Army.) Thus there was no Federal action promoting compliance. Schools in states like Kansas quietly complied. States in the South did not. The NACCP brought legal action which slowly worked their way through the legal system. The first case to produce a desgreagation order emerged in Little Rock, Arkansas. The result is seen here in an excahnge between two Little Rock teenagers. The Little Rock case and threats of mob violence was swiftly resolved by the 82nd Airborne. It would take 20 years to desegregate the rest of the South.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI especially after the March on Washington and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream Speech" focused on Dr. King as a dangerous person. [Hansen]

Civil Rights Legislation (1964-65)

Two months after the Masrch on Washingon, President Kennedy was assasinatd in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a southerner from Texas became president. Senator Johnson in the 1960 election hd played a major role in Senator Kennedy's election by saving some of the southern states for the Democratic ticket. It was not immediately apparent how the new president would approach Civil Right. The Civil Rights Act (1964) which provided a range of legal protections including access to public accomodations. The Voting Rights Act (1965) was the capstone of the movement, guaranteeing access to the voting booth and in the process fundamentally changing America.

Current Assessment

The law for centuries in america was use to deny black rights and sto supress blacks and other minorities. Some observers believe that the power of law since the New Deal has finally brought blacks to full participastion in American civic rights. Indeed there do not appear to be any major legal obstacles to black aspirations. [Weiner]


Janken, Kennth Robert. White: The Biography of Walter White Mr. NAACP (New Press), 477p.

Newman, Roger K. Hugo Black: A Biography (Pantheon: New York, 1994), 741p.

Weiner, Mark S. Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the end of Caste (KNopf, 2004), p. 421.


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Created: 6:11 AM 1/7/2005
Last updated: 3:17 AM 7/25/2012