American Civil Rights Movement Counterintuitive Case Histories

We all know about

We all know the images: President Eisenhower sending in federal troops to enforce desegregation in a Little Rock, Ark. high school, against the protests of Gov. Orval Faubus. George Wallace standing in the way of federal officials who were trying to enroll two african-americans as college students. The manifesto signed by most Southern members of Congress against federally-imposed school desegregation. Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for President on a ticket lable "states' rights," which was actually an anti-civil-rights ticketed. Hubert Humphrey, also in 1948, eloquently declaring that America should get out of the shadow of states' rights, get into the broad sunlight of human rights, and support civil-rights measures.

All of these things happened. Defenders of white supremacy did invoke states' rights, and supporters of the civil rights movement did invoke federal supremacy. But we should also remember that there were cases in which states' rights and the civil rights movement were actually on the same side.

Take the case of Louisiana. During Reconstruction, the state legislature passed a statute forbidding discrimination by certain private businesses and private companies. A steamboat company discriminated against a black woman, Mrs. DeCuir, when she took a steamboat from one part of Louisiana to another. The state of Louisiana tried to enforce its civil-rights statute in favor of Mrs. DeCuir, but the U. S. Supreme Court said no. You see, the steamboat, although it had carried Mrs. DeCuir from one part of Louisiana to another, had continued in its journey so as to leave the state of Louisiana. That put the steamboat into the stream of interstate commerce, and no state legislature could interfere with interstate commerce by integrating the passengers on a steamboat trip.

In another case, Louisiana was more successful. A black man sued a coffee-house owner, claiming discrimination. The jury which heard the case was hung. The coffee-house owner wanted a new trial with a new jury. But under a special Louisiana procedure, the judge dismissed the jury and decided the case himself, ruling in favor of the black man. The coffee-shop owner went to the Supreme Court, saying that he had a constitutional right to have the case decided by a jury. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of the black man. Louisiana didn't have to use juries in civil lawsuits, said the Court-only the federal government had to use juries in such cases. States' rights and civil rights both won a victory.

New York State passed an anti-Ku Klux Klan Act known as the Walker law, which was passed in response to the Klan revival of the 1920s. The Walker law said that any oath-bound organization (except for labor unions and fraternal organizations) had to register with the government and provide a list of members. A Klan member challenged the Walker law in the Supreme Court, saying that he had a right to join the Klan without the Klan having to reveal its members to the government. The Supreme Court upheld the Walker law, however, saying that New York could closely monitor potentially-dangerous groups like the Klan. The Klansman also argued that New York was giving illegal special treatment to unions and fraternal organizations, but the Supreme Court disagreed, deciding that unions and fraternal organizations didn't have to be monitored as closely as Klan-type organizations.

In 1948, when Thurmond was running under the state'-rights banner, the Supreme upheld states' rights in a way Thurmond probably didn't like. Michigan had a civil-rights law, and based on this law it punished an excursion company which had refused to let a black girl ride its excursion boat to a Canadian amusement park. The Court decided that, since the Canadian amusement park was so closely linked to Michigan's economy (mostly Michiganers went to the park), Michigan could desegregate boats even though the boats had travelled in foreign commerce, where the federal government's power of regulation was usually predominant.

In 1950s Chicago, a racist named Beauharnais sent out a leaflet urging the City Council to protect white neighborhoods against black people who were trying to move in. The leaflet charged that black people were knife-wielding, drug-using undesirables. Although the Chicago authorities were against integrated housing, they thought that Beauharnais' racism was too blatant, and Beauharnais was prosecuted under an Illinois law against defaming racial groups. Beauharnais appealed his conviction, saying that he had a First Amendment free-expression right to circulate the leaflet, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court decided that, just as the states could prohibit the defamation of private persons, so also the states could prohibit the defamation of black people and other racial or religious groups (however, a federal appeals court later struck down a similar law passed by the Illinois suburb of Skokie).

In a case from Ohio, a Klan leader said that white people might have to take "revengeance" against the federal government, which was allegedly anti-white. Ohio prosecuted the Klan leader, Brandenburg, for advocating criminal acts. The Supreme Court, however, said that people like Brandenburg had the right, under the First Amendment, to advocate criminal acts unless there was an imminent danger of the advocacy leading to an immediate crime.

Some white people have challenged laws and practices in many states which give legal preferences to non-white minorities. In these "reverse discrimination" cases, the civil-rights leadership supported the power of the states to practice discrimination against whites, while the white people urged the Court to override states' rights and protect caucasians against discrimination. The Court has sometimes ruled for "reverse discrimination," and sometimes ruled against it.

The final case I will cite involves a prison inmate (white) who busted out of prison and killed someone (another white person). After he was convicted of the murder, the Delaware state jury then had to decide whether the murderer would get the death penalty or life imprisonment. The defendant provided evidence that he had belonged to several worthy organizations while in prison (before the murder), including drug-treatment groups. The prosecution countered this evidence by showing that the defendant, while in prison, had joined a white-supremacist prison gang. The Supreme Court said that it was unconstitutional to give evidence of the prisoner's gang membership. A prisoner has a First Amendment right to join a gang unless the prosecution can prove that the gang has engaged in illegal or disruptive acts. It was wrong to tell the jury that the defendant had belonged to a gang.

Readers may have differing opinions as to whether the Supreme Court was right in the cases mentioned here. The common thread in these cases is that, each time, the "states' rights" side was also the side of civil rights and those who challenged the power of the state were also opposing civil rights.

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