Three Supreme Court Cases that Defined Racial Justice in U.S. History

May 2, 2019

To truly understand the history of racism and Black history in the United States, it is vital that we understand how the Supreme Court has ruled on important racial matters, and how these rulings have set the stage for the issues we face today.

 

Although it is not nearly an all-encompassing list, the three important Supreme Court decisions below are some of the most vital rulings concerning Black Americans in United States history.

 

Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. Despite committing no crimes, the boys spent years in Alabama prisons, eight were sentenced to death, and they were threatened with lynchings by angry mobs outside the jail.

 

After multiple trials, the case went to the Supreme Court. In Powell v. Alabama, the Court ruled that the defendants had been denied their right to due process under the 14th Amendment and remanded the case to lower courts.

 

However, prosecutors then put the case in front of a more sympathetic judge, and the boys were given death sentences again. In Norris v. Alabama, the Supreme Court again overturned the verdicts, ruling that a fair trial did not take place. This ruling was a huge victory for groups like the NAACP.

 

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Loving v. Virginia

In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court struck down state laws that banned interracial marriage, deciding that they were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The ruling allowed Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman who were arrested by Virginia police for their marriage, to legally marry in Virginia. It also influenced Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that legalized gay marriage in the United States.

 

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Brown v. Board of Education

This landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 ruled that “separate-but-equal” segregated schools were not equal between whites and blacks, and therefore violated the 14th Amendment. In the ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” largely because of the significantly higher levels of quality of white schools compared with Black schools. This case overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that racially segregated public facilities were constitutional, so long as the quality was equal for all races.

 

Brown v. Board of Education fueled the Civil Rights Movement and has influenced Supreme Court rulings for decades.

 

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From the YGB Black Curriculum: Evicted

May 2, 2019

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond outlines “poverty and profit in the American city,” detailing how economic exploitation and issues with affordable housing can enhance extreme poverty in the United States, especially in communities of color. In the book, Desmond follows the lives of eight families in low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee as they face eviction and struggle to pay the rent that their landlords are demanding.

 

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From the YGB Black Curriculum: Just Mercy

May 2, 2019

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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is an account of Stevenson’s work as a young lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal firm that defends those who are most desperate in society - including people of color, the poor, women and children, and those who are wrongly condemned. The book follows the case of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to death for a murder he said he didn’t commit. Overall, the book sheds light on the politics and injustice of America’s criminal justice system and the coming of age of Stevenson as a lawyer and person.

 

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From the YGB Black Curriculum: Between the World and Me

May 2, 2019

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a letter to Coates’ teenage son describing the harsh realities of being Black in the United States. Drawing upon his childhood and the racism he experienced in school and day-to-day life, Coates explains that "racist violence that has been woven into American culture” and argues that white supremacy is important to fight against, but can never be fully erased from American life.

 

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From the YGB Black Curriculum: All About Love

May 2, 2019

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All About Love by bell hooks discusses love and romance in the context of gender and sexism in the United States. In the book, hooks argues that in modern society, men have been conditioned to resist love, while women have been conditioned to sometimes love too much - even when that love is not reciprocated. Themes of the book include respect, trust, care, self-love, and open and honest communication.

 

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