The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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A National Struggle

Introduction The President The Congress The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court -  important US Supreme Court Cases in the battle for civil rights Page 2 of 2
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The exterior of the Supreme Court building; George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James
Nabrit celebrating after the Brown v. Board decision.
The exterior of the Supreme Court building; George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit celebrating after the Brown v. Board decision.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the general opinion of the Court gradually changed from non-interventionist and pro-states' rights to one more concerned with the enforcement of the Bill of Rights and the preservation of human and civil rights. This was mainly due to the appointment of four new Justices (Hugo Black, 1937; Stanley Reed, 1938; Frank Murphy, 1940; and Robert Jackson, 1941), not to ideological changes on the part of sitting Justices. Slowly, it became more and more difficult for segregation to persist, and the Court made federal intervention more the rule than the exception. The first true challenge to the constitutionality of state segregation laws did not come before the Court until 1938, the case of Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada. A black student, Lloyd Gaines, was denied admission to the white-only State University of Missouri Law School, so he took legal action. The Court affirmed Plessy (6-2), and did not require Missouri to accept Gaines at the Law school. Instead, since Missouri had no black law school, the University had to pay for blacks to go to law school out of state or build a facility similar to that provided for white students. By legally making the maintenance of segregation an expensive and complicated alternative to integration, Gaines was the first of a series of cases that led to the overturning of Plessy.

Thurgood Marshall, NAACP Counsel and civil rights leader, coordinated several key victories before the Supreme Court that resulted in the dismantling of Jim Crow. Morgan v. Virginia (1946 ) challenged the Virginia law requiring passenger motor vehicle carriers to separate white and black passengers. The state law was struck down, as it was found to place undue burden on interstate commerce, and desegregated interstate travel. Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) ruled that a state court could not constitutionally restrict an American from occupying a property on the basis of race, desegregating housing. These cases clearly enforced the 14th Amendment, and demonstrated that equality and separation were increasingly antithetical.

Did You Know: Thurgood Marshall, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, was the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Next, Marshall mounted a well-planned assault on Jim Crow in the educational system by arguing Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLauren v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950). In Sweatt, a case against the University of Texas Law School, the Court ruled that the black facilities provided by the university did not meet the standard of equality, so black students could not be excluded from the white facilities. In McLauren, the Court ruled that Oklahoma could not restrict itself to white students, as separate black facilities removed the important educational opportunity for students to interact with one another. Additionally, McLauren supported black students' right to equality as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Mc Lauren and Sweatt forced integration of graduate and professional schools, and significantly, there were no dissenters in either case. Though Plessy was not re-examined in these cases, the stage was set for its overturn in undergraduate and pre-collegiate educational facilities.

Marshall used these victories to prepare himself and the Court for a direct attack on Plessy v. Ferguson. In four cases known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 55), Marshall argued that segregation was inherently unconstitutional, and that it denied an entire race the equal protection guaranteed by 14th Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren was a skilled negotiator, and garnered a unanimous decision in which the Court ruled that "'separate but equal' has no place" in America's public schools, as separate was deemed inherently unequal. Jim Crow was suddenly at odds with the law of the country, and openly threatened white supremacy. Though the legality of Jim Crow in education had been defeated, blacks continued to struggle for equal rights in its wake.

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Historical Documents
Read Chief Justice Earl Warren's decree regarding the implementation of the Court's ruling in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case.
Related Pages
The President

The Congress

NAACP Founded


Moore v. Dempsey

Charles Hamilton Houston

Gaines v. Canada

Smith v. Allright

Morgan v. Virginia

Brown v. Board of Education

Interactive Maps

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