While the Civil Rights movement began soon after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments it would gain momentum in the 1950s with the key Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education overturning segregation. Even with the landmark Supreme Court decision, segregation did not end in a timely fashion. For the next years, both violent and anti-violent incidents characterized the movement. Eventually, the civil rights movement would eventually see gains for African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and women.
Black wrote many well-known majority opinions, as well as famous dissents. His reading of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech led him to argue that the government cannot ban “obscene” speech. He also held in New York Times v. United States (1971) that national security did not allow the government to prevent the publication of sensitive information. He upheld strict separation of church and state in Engel v. Vitale (1962) referencing Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists.
His strict constructionist reading of the Constitution also informed his dissent in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) where he asserted that wearing armbands was “conduct” and not “speech.” He also dissented in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) rejecting the idea that the Constitution protected a right to privacy.
In 1962, Chavez exercised his First Amendment freedom of assembly and founded the National Farm Workers Association, later called the United Farm Workers. This union fought for contracts, safe conditions, higher wages, and job security for union members. He led a nationwide boycott of grapes to increase support for the United Farm Workers.
Though his critics point out that unionized farm labor resulted in great numbers of willing workers being turned away from jobs, Cesar Chavez’s perseverance brought the experiences of migrant workers to national attention.
In 1960 Johnson was elected Vice President under President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson assumed the presidency. He urged Congress to adopt the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After being reelected in 1964, Johnson urged the nation to “build a great society.” Congress approved Johnson’s unprecedented series of social programs, which became known as the “Great Society.” The Social Security Act was amended to include Medicare for the elderly. The Voting Rights Act addressed discrimination in voting. Welfare programs were implemented to combat poverty and crime. Despite these programs, however, crime and poverty persisted, and race riots plagued the nation.
Johnson also exercised his power as Commander in Chief of the military during the Vietnam War. In 1964 he asked Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving him expanded war power to fight communism in Vietnam. In 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection due to the growing unrest in the country over the Vietnam War. In response to questions about the president’s role as Commander in Chief, and the separation of powers under the Constitution during the administrations of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973.
In 1971, the printing of classified documents pertaining in part to Johnson’s conduct during the Vietnam War were at the center of the Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States (1971).
In 1963 King spoke at the March on Washington. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King electrified the crowd of 250,000 with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He referred to the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality.
While imprisoned for marching in April 1963, King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which is regarded as a manifesto of the civil rights movement. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King also led civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Television cameras captured police brutality on peaceful marchers exercising their rights to assemble freely.
Throughout his life, King spoke to crowds who had assembled freely, in order to promote and expand freedom for Americans.
In 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court. Through his career on the bench of the highest Court, Marshall expressed his commitment to the Constitution and principles of equality, individual rights and liberty, authoring opinions in cases including Regents of California v. Bakke (1978). Sometimes known as the “Great Dissenter,” he often broke from majority opinions. He believed capital punishment to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment in all circumstances, and dissented from all rulings that applied the death penalty.
Documents/Supreme Court Cases
In his capacity as Commander in Chief, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730 in September,1957, bringing the Arkansas National Guard under federal control to assist in the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School. At the same time, Eisenhower also directed U. S. Army troops from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, to go to Little Rock to protect the young African Americans and guarantee that court orders would be executed.
He wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He explained his struggle for natural rights, including those protected by the U. S. Constitution: “[W]e have not made a single gain [in] civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights.”
Finally, he urged nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of securing justice. He wrote: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
King’s letter was published in newspapers across the country and helped to gain broader support for the civil rights movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has several major provisions: (1) a ban on discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, etc.; (2) a declaration that any government agency receiving federal funds could lose those funds if engaged in unlawful discrimination; and (3) a declaration making it unlawful for employers, employment agencies, labor unions, or training programs to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in hiring, discharging, or conditions of employment.
When the law’s constitutionality was challenged before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1964 in Heart of Atlanta Motel v U. S. and Katzenbach v McClung, the Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality. As one historian has written, “it remains the broadest, most effective, and most important civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction.”
Using the enforcement clause of the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment, both chambers of Congress passed the Voting Rights Act by overwhelming votes, and Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965. Among the law’s major provisions are the following: (1) prohibits nationwide denial of the right to vote based on literacy tests; (2) certain state and local areas where less than 50% of eligible voters had voted in 1964 came under federal supervision and could only escape from such by demonstrating to the U. S. Attorney General that the area had not used any test or device that interfered with voting in the past five years; (3) state or local governments covered by the law considering any change in their voting or election procedures had to submit the proposed change for “pre-clearance” by the U. S. Department of Justice or the U. S. District Court in the District of Columbia; and (4) the U. S. Attorney General could send poll watchers and federal examiners to any of the covered areas to register voters and supervise elections. In 1966, in South Carolina v Katzenbach, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Congress reauthorized and extended the legislation several times in later years, including extending it to “language minorities” and requiring bilingual ballots. The law resulted in dramatic increases in the number of African American voters. However, the usefulness of the law has been called into question by a 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v Holder where the Court declared the “coverage formula” of the law unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the state of Texas and in favor of Heman Sweatt and declared that “the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that petitioner be admitted to the University of Texas Law School.” The Court found that in terms of volumes in the library, reputation of faculty, offering of courses, and available scholarships, the University of Texas Law School was far superior. Even in terms of intangibles like the ability to interact with his colleagues in the legal profession and the reputation of the University, the new law school for African-Americans was lacking. The Court thus held that Texas had not met the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” requirement.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the African-American parents and their children. In doing so, the Court overruled the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson and its “separate but equal” rule. Speaking through Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court declared: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."
On the same day the Court handed down its decision in Brown, the Court also ended racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia in Bolling v Sharpe.
In 1955, the Supreme Court heard reargument in Brown v Board of Education II. The Court was again unanimous, and this time, directed the public schools involved to admit “with all deliberate speed” students on a racially nondiscriminatory basis.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court which agreed with the arguments made by Hernandez’ attorneys and thus overturned his conviction. Warren wrote: “In numerous decisions, this Court has held that it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws of the Fourteenth Amendment to try a defendant of a particular race or color under an indictment issued by a grand jury, or before a petit jury, from which all persons of his race or color have, solely because of that race or color, been excluded by the state, whether acting through its legislature, its courts, or its executive or administrative officers. … Petitioner’s only claim is the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class are not systematically excluded – juries selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent. To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution.”