The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment during the Civil Rights Movement was the greatest contribution to the success of the movement
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s was fighting for equal rights among blacks. Representatives of various groups, organizations, and free citizens have called for social changes, desegregation, and civil rights protections under the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution stated that no state could deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Besides, the First Amendment protected the freedom of speech and press, the people’s right to assemble peacefully and petition the government for redress. The Civil Rights Movement has set many legal precedents, and the Supreme Court has often relied on the First Amendment when deciding on members of the movement. Moreover, a series of historic Supreme Court’s decisions made possible the success of this movement and established new rules regarding civil rights and freedoms.
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In particular, in NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958), the Supreme Court established the right to freedom of association. The crux of the matter was that Alabama had a business law that required foreign corporations to be cleared by state officials. The NAACP, a non-profit organization that advocates for black people’s rights, opened an office in New York but operated in Alabama and believed it was not subject to its law. The state of Alabama filed a lawsuit, claiming that the NAACP activities damaged the government and violated the law’s requirements. An Alabama court banned the NAACP and expressed contempt for the organization for not providing its members’ list.
However, the NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the state could not require the NAACP to list all organization members since it would prevent them from exercising their right to freedom of association. In particular, the Supreme Court “has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations” (NAACP v. Alabama, 1958). It was also stated that “inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to the preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs” (NAACP v. Alabama, 1958). Mr. Justice Harlan, who delivered the Court’s opinion, acknowledged that in this case, members of the association could rightly fear persecution associated with the publication of their names. Finally, the Court found that the plaintiff did not claim the right to ignore the laws of Alabama and did not object to the disclosure of the identity of its members who held official positions but only defended the rights of its ordinary members.
Another major decision was made concerning the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), according to which the requirements for the charge of libel were revised. In the case, the defendants were the New York Times, which ran an ad calling to join the Civil Rights Movement. The ad also reported aggressive police action against the protesters and contained some minor factual errors. Mr. Sullivan, a state police officer, filed a lawsuit claiming the ad defamed him, although the publication did not include the officers’ names. The Supreme Court ruled that “the evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support the defendant’s decision because it did not support the conclusion that the statements were made with malice or that they concerned the defendant” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964). The Court’s decision allowed the press to further report on the violation of civil rights.
Another major decision that strengthened the rights to freedom of assembly and petition was taken in Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963). The crux of the case was that 187 black citizens who rallied peacefully in defense of their rights were arrested by the police and found guilty of disturbing public order. However, the Supreme Court ruled that “the circumstances reflect an exercise of basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form” (Edwards v. South Carolina, 1963) It was also stated that “the petitioners felt aggrieved by South Carolina laws that allegedly ‘prohibited Negro privileges in this State’; they peaceably assembled at the site of the State Government and there peaceably expressed their grievances” (Edwards v. South Carolina, 1963). Therefore, the Court concluded that criminal convictions could not stand.
To what extent has the federal court system been successful in protecting against injustices committed at the state level? (Confine your answer to the years 1872 – 1954)
The Fourteenth Amendment states that all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States and the state where they reside. Therefore, no state can make or enforce any law that abridges citizens’ privileges or immunities. The first section of the amendment also guarantees that any state cannot deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
However, the federal court system did not always successfully protect U.S. citizens against injustices committed at the state level. Sometimes the decisions of the Supreme Court violated citizens’ human rights. A defendant in the Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), Homer Plessy, who was black, got into a train compartment designated for white passengers. Under Louisiana law, he was arrested after refusing to change seats. By the Supreme Court’s decision, he was found guilty, since in Court’s opinion, ‘separate but equal’ conditions for whites and blacks did not violate the 14th amendment. However, Judge John Marshall Harlan disagreed with the decision. He stated that in the United States, “there is no caste; our Constitution does not take into account colors and does not know or tolerate classes among citizens” (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896). Despite his opposition, the decision remained in effect and reinforced the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ terms.
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Buck v. Bell 274 US 200 (1927) is another case that demonstrates that the Supreme Court made inhuman decisions. The crux of the matter was that a young woman, Carrie Buck, was diagnosed “feeble-minded” and admitted to the John Bell facility, an epileptic colony, after being raped by her stepfather’s nephew and giving birth to a child. Carrie Buck had to be sterilized against her will under the Virginia Eugenic Sterilization Act due to a diagnosis. Buck’s guardian filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, but the Court found no reason to prohibit sterilization. Moreover, Judge Oliver Holmes expressed the opinion that “instead of waiting for the execution of degenerate descendants for a crime or allowing them to starve because of their dementia, society will be able to prevent those who are unfit from breeding their kind” (Buck v. Bell, 1927). It is noteworthy that forced sterilization was practiced in the United States for another three decades.
Finally, the judgment in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was fairer. The crux of the matter was that Linda Brown had to walk a dangerous journey to a black school every day when a white school was near her residence. Her father, Oliver Brown, filed a lawsuit in the hope of protecting the girl. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. In particular, it was noted that “our decision cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of these cases; we must look to the effect of segregation itself on public education” (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954). According to the second court order, the lower courts and school boards were ordered to proceed with desegregation.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963).
NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958).
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).