The Road to Racial Equality: Court Cases and Legislation

Here are several court cases and legislation between the 19th and 20th centuries that paved the way for African Americans to gain racial equality.

Aug 2, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
racial discrimination civil rights protest
Civil rights protest in Seattle, Washington, 1963, via National Museum of American History, Washington DC

 

Before and during the Civil Rights Movement, several efforts were made to grant African Americans human and civil rights and freedoms. The Dred Scott vs. Sandford case and the establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation were the starts of a gleaming hope that racial equality would be put underway. Here are some of the most significant court cases and legislations that led to racial equality.

 

Dred Scott vs. Sandford & the Emancipation Proclamation that Paved the Way for Racial Equality

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Photograph of the 107th United States Colored Troops regiment in the Civil War at Fort Corcoran, via National Park Service

 

In the mid-1800s, the United States was on the brink of war as disagreements between Northern and Southern states began to arise. In the midst of these quarrels was the topic of slavery. There was also a lot of change happening in the United States in the 19th century, such as the addition of the Louisiana Purchase.

 

In the late 18th century, some states abolished slavery and became free states, leading to the beginning of racial equality. Southern states were highly supportive of slavery, while most northern states opposed it. The Louisiana Purchase heightened tensions because there were disagreements on how new states should become slave or free states. The Missouri Compromise ultimately put the disagreements to rest as Missouri became a slave state and Maine a free state. Slavery would also be banned in the majority of the northern states.

 

Dred Scott vs. Sandford

dred scott sandford supreme court decision
Newspaper ad for pamphlet of the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision with portrait of Dred Scott (right), collage created by the author, via Library of Congress and Smithsonian Learning Lab

 

The Dred Scott v. Sandford case contributed to the growing tensions between the Northern and Southern states. An enslaved Black man, Dred Scott, sued for his and his family’s freedom in 1846 after his former slave master, John Emerson, died and ownership was passed to his wife, Irene. Emerson had purchased Scott in the slave state of Missouri, but they later moved to Illinois and then Wisconsin, both of which were considered free territories.

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Scott argued that he should be considered free because they had lived in free territories. The case was brought to the St. Louis Circuit Court, which had initially ruled in Scott’s favor. However, this would later change when the Missouri Supreme Court appealed the decision. In 1857, the decision was made in the majority opinion that Scott could not sue because African Americans were not considered citizens under the Constitution.

 

The court case came as a shock to many and has been considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. This only fueled the fire slowly growing between the North and South. Dred Scott v. Sandford ultimately set the stage for the American Civil War, which became a battle for freedom and racial equality upon the establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

 

Emancipation Proclamation and Racial Equality

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Pages 2 and 3 of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, 1862, via National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC

 

Slavery was the forefront issue of the American Civil War. Arguments over the moral and economic issues of abolishing or keeping slavery were at an all-time high. President Lincoln established the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War. This gave Union soldiers even more encouragement to fight for the freedoms and racial equality of enslaved peoples.

 

The Emancipation Proclamation was introduced in 1863 and deemed enslaved people in the rebellious states free. However, it didn’t hold enough power to abolish slavery altogether and had several limitations. For example, states that bordered and supported the seceded states were still allowed to have slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed enslaved people in the states that seceded. The Civil War was ultimately the deciding factor on whether slavery would be abolished quicker or not.

 

The Big Three Civil Rights Amendments

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Joint resolution of Congress abolishing slavery by D. R. Clark, 1868, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

The 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865 following the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States and its territories. Slavery had been present in the United States before it was even established as a nation, with the first slave ship arriving in 1619. Therefore, Black people had been subject to slavery in the United States for more than 200 years before gaining any rights or freedoms.

 

The 14th Amendment followed shortly after the 13th and was ratified in 1868. This gave citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people. The 14th Amendment also granted formerly enslaved people the right to due process of law and equal protection. However, there were still several limitations, and it was not very successful in fully protecting the rights of Black citizens.

 

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Poll tax receipt for $1.50 in Sumter County, Alabama, 1932, via Southern Poverty Law Center

 

African American men were given the right to vote following the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. However, there were still flaws in the amendment that made it possible for states to develop various clauses and laws that made it difficult for Black male citizens to vote. For example, voters were subject to poll taxes and literacy tests. Since enslaved people were unable to receive an education and were very rarely taught how to read or write, it was difficult for many Black people to pass these tests. The questions on the literacy tests were also purposefully very confusing.

 

White citizens were ultimately exempt from the literacy tests and poll taxes under the Grandfather Clause. The clause was created to prevent Black men from voting, as they were required to own property and be literate to vote. The clause protected white men because it allowed anyone who had descendants who voted prior to 1867 to be exempt from these requirements.

 

Plessy vs. Ferguson

segregation white colored signs cafe
Segregated entrances to a cafe labeled “white” and “colored” in Durham, North Carolina by Jack Delano, 1940, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

Even though African Americans were granted citizenship and men were allowed to vote by the late-19th century, mistreatment of Black people continued. White supremacists feared that Black people would one day be considered equals. Black codes, later named Jim Crow laws, were established to prevent Black people from exercising their rights and freedoms. Public facilities and communities were segregated, with white facilities being more accommodating. In some areas, Black people were not offered separate facilities and were forced to travel farther to find a “colored only” facility.

 

In 1896, a case was brought before the US Supreme Court over the topic of segregation. Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man who was one-eighth Black and seven-eighths white, attempted to sit in a “whites only” railway car. After refusing to give up his seat, Plessy was arrested. Plessy claimed that his rights had been violated under the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

 

In the lower court, Judge John Ferguson had ruled that the “separate but equal accommodations” under the Jim Crow laws of Louisiana were not unconstitutional. Plessy brought the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Ferguson. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the “separate but equal” laws allowed states to maintain the legality of segregation. In the early decades of the 1900s, civil rights organizations began to form to fight back against Jim Crow laws. These efforts led to the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Brown vs. Board of Education

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From left to right: George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James M. Nabrit celebrating the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954, via Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

 

The Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public educational facilities was arguably the most significant civil rights case in history. Although the case is typically described as one, it is actually made up of five separate cases that addressed segregation in public schools. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is responsible for kicking off the start of these court cases by establishing the Legal Defense and Education Fund.

 

One of the NAACP’s leaders, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Thurgood Marshall collaborated with each other to tackle Jim Crow laws. Houston and Marshall decided that targeting segregation in public schools was the best approach in beginning the fight against racial discrimination. Thurgood Marshall became the head of the Education Fund in 1938.

 

Marshall handled a majority of the Brown v. Board of Education cases. The cases were brought before the Supreme Court beginning in 1952. The bulk of Marshall’s argument was that schools for Black children were inherently unequal compared to white schools. In May 1954, the Supreme Court announced its decision that the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in public education under the Equal Protection Clause. Although it would take years for schools to fully integrate, especially in the South, the decision was a major success for the Civil Rights Movement agenda.

 

Civil Rights Act of 1964 & Voting Rights Act of 1965

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Protesters at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963, via National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC

 

As a result of the many protests and campaigns launched during the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed any laws that allowed segregation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 secured African Americans’ right to vote by banning discriminatory voting laws. Efforts made by civil rights activists to fight for racial equality over the course of the 20th century had finally paid off.

 

There was still much more racial justice to be served in the coming decades, but these laws were a major success in securing the federal government’s support of human and civil rights for Black people. States were no longer allowed to uphold laws that supported segregation nor tolerate any violations of these new civil rights laws.

 

From the Emancipation Proclamation to Racial Equality

civil rights march washington jobs freedom supporters
Civil rights supporters at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by Warren K. Leffler, 1963, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

The Emancipation Proclamation gave African Americans the hope that they would one day receive the human and civil rights and freedoms they deserved. Once the promise of the abolishment of slavery was secured through the 13th Amendment, the focus on freedoms turned to equality.

 

After the dispiriting Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the determination to continue fighting for equal rights heightened. The significant Brown v. Board of Education decision resulted from continuous advocacy, protests, and campaigns that encouraged civil rights activists to demand more. Once the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed, it became clear that segregation and racial inequality had no place in America. It took many years for these laws to be accepted, and racial discrimination still continued. Nevertheless, the successes for racial justice before and during the Civil Rights Movement are some of the most significant accomplishments in history.



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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.