As part of Black History Month, we are looking back over some historic U.S. Supreme Court cases, Amendments and Acts that led to today’s global civil rights movement.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Only two centuries ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “[s]laves were not citizens of the United States and, therefore, could not expect any protection from the Federal Government or the courts.”  Dred and Harriet Scott had been slaves who escaped to a free territory. They were captured and returned to a slave state. The question presented was whether the Scott’s escape to a free territory ensured their freedom thereafter, even upon involuntary return to a slave state. The panned March 6, 1857 decision stated that the Scott’s had no inherent right to freedom and was later overturned by Amendments 13 and 14 to the Constitution.

This ruling contributed to the start of the American Civil War.

“Now, 164 years later, a resolution heard Tuesday in the state Senate Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee states “that the times have once again changed and we declare the March 22, 1852, Missouri Supreme Court Dred Scott decision is fully and entirely renounced.”

The Joplin Globe

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Thirty-nine years after the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation laws were not unconstitutional as long as the public segregated facilities were equal in quality, which became known as “Separate but Equal”.

This policy was implemented until the U.S. Supreme Court later established that it violated the Constitution in Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools implemented in State laws were unconstitutional. The court stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Brown v. Board of Education established that the State’s separate but equal laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

United States Courts

Thirteenth Amendment – Ended slavery.

Fourteenth Amendment – Established equal protections and privileges for all persons in the United States.

Civil Rights Act (1964)
Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer marked the collective rise in voting rights resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which enforced the Fifteenth Amendment.

Fifteenth Amendment – Guaranteed African American men the right to vote irrespective of race, color, or prior enslavement.

Fair Housing Act (1968)

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex.

The road after 1968 paved way for more cases in the civil rights movement.

 These historic cases are just a few highlights of the civil rights movement that took place during the 1950s and 1960s and the events leading up to then. The civil rights movement was an empowering yet uncertain time for Black Americans. The efforts of civil rights activists and countless protestors of all races brought about legislation to end segregation, voter suppression, and discriminatory employment and housing practices. History is still being made today with movements such as Black Lives Matter, which was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and growing awareness regarding injustice, particularly in the area of excessive use of force by police.

By Jessica Cure and Twylla Vennum, February 12, 2021.

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