March 01, 2022

Sum, Substance, and Social Justice: Civil Rights Litigation During the Past 125 Years and the Impact on our Present and Future

Venable Diversity and Inclusion Speaker Series

6 min

As part of our Black History Month celebrations, Venable partner Craig Thompson delivered a fascinating lecture about civil rights litigation going back more than 100 years. Among the cases Craig discussed were Supreme Court decisions that upheld the practice of slavery and the "separate but equal" doctrine that set back progress and rendered Black people second-class citizens for much of our country's history. He also explored several groundbreaking cases that furthered the cause of equal rights for all related to matters of housing, education, due process, equal access/freedom of movement, and the right to love whomever one wishes. These pivotal cases, highlighted below, had a profound effect on society at the time and continue to impact our lives today.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Scott v. Sandford was a decade-long fight for freedom by an enslaved Black man named Dred Scott whose owners had taken him from a slave-owning state to a state where slavery was illegal. Scott petitioned the court that because he now resided in a free state, he should be free. The case persisted through several courts and ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority decision written by the now-infamous Justice Roger B. Taney held that a Negro born enslaved or free could never be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. Unsurprisingly, this decision provoked a furious backlash and gave momentum to the anti-slavery movement. But while it held, Black Americans had to live with its terrible repercussions.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Plessy v. Ferguson brought about another landmark Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine. The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which a New Orleans-born shoemaker, Homer Plessy, refused to sit in the car designated for Black people. What made this case particularly interesting was that Plessy was considered to be an "octoroon," a term used to describe a person who is seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. Even though he looked white, under the law he was considered Black. So, in what was a calculated attempt to challenge what the state of Louisiana called the Separate Car Act, Plessy had to tell the conductor that he was Black when he handed over his ticket – an act that got him arrested. When the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, the decision to uphold the separate but equal doctrine as constitutional had many ramifications. Once it was established, many states enabled what became known as Jim Crow laws, which set separate accommodations, separate travel, separate places of worship, and separate places of education for Blacks and whites.

Powell v. Alabama (1932)

In this pivotal case, nine young Black Alabama youths – ranging in age from 12 to 19 – were charged with raping two white women near the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama. Their trials were conducted within days after the alleged crime, and despite plentiful evidence of their innocence, eight of the nine were swiftly found guilty by all-white juries and sentenced to death by electrocution. As outrage grew over this appalling miscarriage of justice, numerous legal organizations stepped forward to help with appeals. Ultimately, the court held that the Scottsboro defendants were denied due process because they had not been given reasonable time or opportunity to secure counsel in their defense. While the young men were thankfully spared from execution, they languished in prison for years. The case marked the first stirrings of the civil rights movement and led to two landmark Supreme Court rulings that established important rights for criminal defendants to this day – the right to counsel and the right to a fair and speedy trial.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

This case arose after a Black family purchased a home in Missouri that was subject to a restrictive covenant that prevented "people of the Negro or Mongolian race" from occupying that neighborhood or those properties. The Supreme Court ultimately heard the case and decided that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause prohibited racially restrictive housing covenants from being enforced and struck down the covenant. It is largely because of this ruling that many of the neighborhoods that we live in today are multicultural and multiracial.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and that separate educational facilities for white and Black students were inherently unequal. Of all the critical civil rights cases, this was the one that most altered the direction of American life, because it struck down the notion of "separate but equal" and set the foundation for all Americans to learn together, to live together, and to rethink who we are as a nation. Interestingly, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal," was never overtly overruled. But thanks to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s, the separate but equal doctrine was effectively eliminated.

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. The United States (1964)

When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in privately owned hotels, motels, and restaurants, the owner of the Heart of Atlanta motel – who refused to rent rooms to Black people – sued, claiming that the act violated his rights as a private businessman. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled against the Heart of Atlanta and determined that the hotel's discriminatory action violated the Constitution. Interestingly, the Supreme Court relied on the Commerce Clause in its ruling to assert the proposition that private businesses could be enjoined from discriminating on racial grounds when there was interstate commerce involved. The decision led to the dismantling of segregation across the South, putting an end to the business of bigotry practiced at the Heart of Atlanta Motel. The freedom we take for granted today to move around the country at will and to stay where we wish is directly related to this case.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

The case involved a Virginia-based interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Richard was white and Mildred was Black), who fell in love while working together at a construction site and got married in Washington, DC. When they crossed the state line back to Virginia after their wedding, local law enforcement burst into their home to arrest them in the early hours of the morning because they had violated Virginia's anti-miscegenation law, which prohibited interracial marriage. And so, the aptly named Lovings challenged this archaic law and took it all the way to the Supreme Court. There had been some previous challenges to anti-miscegenation laws dating back to the 1800s. But the courts typically responded that these laws weren't discriminatory because they impacted Blacks and whites equally or alleged that it was within state's rights to determine how they allow people to socialize. But in what is considered to be one of the most significant legal decisions of the civil rights era, the Lovings prevailed: The Supreme Court declared Virginia's anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional, thereby ending prohibitions on interracial marriage and paving the way for all of us to love and marry whomever we choose.

This program is part of Venable's 2022 D&I Speaker Series. To learn more about Venable's diversity initiatives, please click here.