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Constitution Daily

A Look at Landmark Supreme Court Cases on Race and the Constitution

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers two important cases about affirmative action and higher education, Constitution Daily looks at several landmark Supreme Court decisions involving race, equality, and the 14th Amendment.

The National Constitution Center’s Supreme Court cases library—which includes cases selected by scholars Ilan Wurman and Caroline Fredrickson—has summaries and excerpts of many of these cases, with analysis from both scholars. Readers can also consult related documents in the Center’s Historic Documents library.

Below are eight major cases that together help to tell the story of how the Court evaluated—and re-evaulated—these questions over time:

  1. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): In this pre-Civil War case, Dred Scott was an enslaved man who was taken by his enslaver into a free state (Illinois) and a free federal territory (the Wisconsin territory). Scott sued for freedom for himself and his family based on his stay in free territory. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney wrote the majority opinion, in which the Court held that no Black person, whether enslaved or free, could be an American citizen. As Wurman and Fredrickson summarize, “The Court refused to permit Scott constitutional protections and rights because he was not a citizen. Therefore, he did not have the right to sue because the relevant constitutional provision granted federal courts jurisdiction only between ‘citizens’ of different states.” They add: “This holding pushed back efforts for the abolition of slavery and created a standard that African Americans were not American citizens, confirming that they had no constitutional protections or rights.” Justices Benjamin Curtis and John McLean dissented, writing that those born here are citizens. However, birthright citizenship would not be enshrined in the Constitution until the 14th Amendment’s ratification after the Civil War in 1868, which directly overturned the Dred Scott decision.
  2. Strauder v. West Virginia (1880): Two years before the 14th Amendment’s ratification, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first federal civil rights bill. Under the act’s section 3, defendants in state trials could bring civil or criminal cases that allegedly denied their rights under the law to federal court. In 1874, Strauder, a formerly enslaved person, was charged with murder and convicted by an all-white jury. West Virginia had enacted a law that limited jury service to “state citizens who were white men over the age of 21.” Strauder appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that this law violated the 14th Amendment’ Equal Protection Clause. The Court struck down the West Virginia statute because “it denied citizens the equal right to be jurors on the basis of race” in violation of the Amendment. (The 1866 Civil Rights Act is part of the NCC’s Historic Documents library.)
  3. The Civil Rights Cases (1883): During the Grant Administration, Congress passed another civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which attempted to ban racial discrimination in certain public spaces. Pushed by Senator Charles Sumner, it was the final piece of landmark civil rights legislation passed during Reconstruction. In five separate cases that were later consolidated, Black Americans sued theater, hotel, and railroad companies for denying them the same accommodations as a white person under the law. However, as Wurman and Fredrickson write, in 1883, the Supreme Court struck down part of the law and drew a distinction between state and private action, holding that the 14th Amendment “required ‘state action’ and did not apply to privately owned ‘public accommodations’ like hotels, restaurants, and theaters.”
  4. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): More than a decade after The Civil Rights Cases were decided, the Court went further in Plessy v. Ferguson to rule “that state-sanctioned segregation in public accommodations was also constitutional.” Homer Plessy, an African American man, challenged a Louisiana law that segregated railroad cars. As Wurman and Fredrickson explain, this law was just one example of state “Jim Crow” laws that extended to most public and semi-public facilities. Justice John Marshall Harlan disagreed that the law should be upheld, stating in a lone dissent that, “in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” The Plessy decision enabled state-sanctioned segregation to remain in place until the Court overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
  5. United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898): Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to parents who were Chinese citizens. When Wong was 21, he took a trip to China to visit his parents.  When he returned to the United States, Wong was denied entry into the country on the ground that he was not a U.S. citizen. In a 6-2 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark. Because he was born in the United States and his parents were not “employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China,” the the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause —the same provision that overturned Dred Scott—automatically made Wong a U.S. citizen.
  6. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954): In 1951, the public school system in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll local African American resident Oliver Brown’s daughter, Linda, at the elementary school close to their home, instead requiring her to ride a bus to a segregated school that was farther away. The Court considered Brown’s case along with similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The challenge focused on the constitutionality of racial segregation inside of public schools, directly attacking the “separate but equal” doctrine created in Plessy and arguing that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment by depriving the students of equal educational opportunities. The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously sided with the parents and students, overturned Plessy, and declared school segregation unconstitutional. Wurman and Fredrickson write: “With this landmark decision, the Court took an important step in desegregating our nation’s schools, opening the door to further legal challenges to Jim Crow laws in other contexts, and reinvigorating the promise of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.”
  7. Loving v. Virginia (1967): Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple, were married in Washington, D.C., but moved to Virginia where interracial marriage was banned under Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. A county grand jury indicted the Lovings with committing a criminal offense, but the couple appealed their conviction, arguing that the law violated the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed, holding that the law violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. As Wurman and Fredrickson write, the Court concluded “that the law treated people differently based on race because it prohibited marriage based on the race of the other party to the marriage. …This holding marked an expansion of the Court’s interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause and the characteristics it protects.”
  8. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978): Allan Bakke, a white man, had twice applied for admission to the University of California-Davis Medical School but was rejected both times. The school had reserved a number of places for “qualified” minorities as part of the university’s affirmative action program. Bakke challenged the program, arguing that he had been excluded from admission solely on the basis of race in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. When the Supreme Court decided the case, there was no single majority opinion. However, Justice Lewis Powell’s controlling opinion said that use of race as one factor in admission was permissible, while the use of racial quotas violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court is currently revisiting this decision this term, as it hears cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina, challenging the affirmative action programs of each school. A decision is expected by this summer.

READ 2 COMMENTS
  • Randy says:

    It is so sad that we had Courts that were as racist as you can be! It is a shameful part of our History.

  • Wes says:

    Hate, racism, abuse, murder, and the list gets bigger. Love, caring, friendship, salvation, Jesus. I like the second set of words. Repent and be Baptized. Pray in Jesus Name. Then God will give you understanding, otherwise you are lost and cannot enter Heaven. Man is evil and rejects God. That’s why Jesus died. Pray in Jesus Name. Not all Religions and Darwinism are right. All think they are. Do good, not evil. I try and help at least one person a day. This life is temporary. For the believer, through trial and error, recognizes eternity with God, cannot be earned. But, help people because we are going to a Heaven. Struggles, depression, pain. Of course. We realize, like Jesus, the lost need to Repent and be Baptized. Accept Jesus, despite our weaknesses, and do our best. Then, thou shalt be saved. From satan, and hell. Do not let the devil take your salvation. One breathe away. Where is your soul going?

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