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Context of 'December 6, 1944: Supreme Court Bars Texas Political Party from Racial Discrimination'

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The US Supreme Court rules in Dred Scott v. Sandford that African-Americans are not citizens regardless of their status as free or slave, and therefore cannot sue for redress in federal courts. The Court also rules that Congress has no power to ban slavery in US territories, and that the rights of slaveowners are protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves are categorized as property. The origins of the case date to 1833 when Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and moved him to a military base in Wisconsin. Slavery was banned in territories made free by the Missouri Compromise, and Wisconsin was one of these territories. However, Scott did not assert his freedom at that time. Instead, he lived in Wisconsin for four years, sometimes hiring himself out for work. In 1840, Scott moved with his family to Louisiana and then to St. Louis, Missouri, with Emerson. After Emerson died, Scott attempted to buy his family’s freedom from Emerson’s wife Eliza Irene Sanford, but was refused. (Sanford’s name was misspelled ‘Sandford’ in court documents.) Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he and his family were free because they lived in a territory where slavery was illegal, and that he was owed back wages. A state court found in Scott’s favor in 1850, but Sanford’s brother John appealed the decision. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the original decision. Scott, alleging physical abuse, then sued John Sanford for damages in a federal court, but a jury disallowed Scott’s right to file a case in federal court. Scott appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction to take the case because Scott is not a US citizen. Taney writes that Scott is “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves,” and, therefore, he is not a “member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution.” Taney also dismisses Scott’s assertion that his residence in a free state automatically grants him freedom and status as a US citizen, reasoning that states may choose to recognize the rights of freed slaves as citizens, but the federal government is under no obligation to do so. Lastly, the Court finds that, because slaves are property, Congress’s ban on slavery in the territories violates the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights. Justice Benjamin Curtis issues a powerful dissent to the Taney opinion. The Court’s decision will exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern states, being widely seen as validating the South’s view of national power. It will also embolden pro-slavery Southerners and others to try to extend slavery into other areas of the nation, and will infuriate abolitionists, who will become powerful voices within the newly formed Republican Party. The three “Reconstruction Amendments”—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth (see February 26, 1869)—will render the Scott decision invalid. In modern times, all people born or naturalized in the US will be considered citizens who have the right to bring suit in federal court. [PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: Republican Party, Benjamin Curtis, Dred Scott, Eliza Irene Sanford, John Emerson, US Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, Missouri Supreme Court, John Sanford

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment, giving African-American men, and in theory men of other minorities, the right to vote. The Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Over a century later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will write, “In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, the Fifteenth Amendment is one of the major tools which enabled African-Americans to more fully participate in democracy.” It will be ratified by the states in 1870. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; The Constitution: Amendments 11-27, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Congress, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In Elk v. Wilkins, the US Supreme Court restricts Native American voting rights by denying Native American John Elk the right to vote. According to the Court, Elk cannot vote in his home state of Nebraska because his intention to become a citizen requires approval from the government. Additionally, the Court finds that Elk is not a citizen because he does not “owe allegiance to the United States,” and thusly the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869) does not apply to him. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, John Elk

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An excerpt from a ‘Harper’s Weekly’ cartoon from 1876 showing two white men menacing a black man attempting to cast a vote. The cartoon illustrates the effect of the ‘grandfather clause.’ An excerpt from a ‘Harper’s Weekly’ cartoon from 1876 showing two white men menacing a black man attempting to cast a vote. The cartoon illustrates the effect of the ‘grandfather clause.’ [Source: Harper's / St. John's School]The Louisiana legislature adopts a so-called “grandfather clause” designed to disenfranchise African-American voters. As a result, the percentage of registered black voters drops from 44.8 percent in 1896 to 4 percent in 1890. Louisiana’s lead is followed by similar laws being passed in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia. Louisiana’s “grandfather clause” requires voters to register between January 1, 1897 and January 1, 1898. It imposes a literacy test. Illiterate or non-property owning voters whose fathers or grandfathers were not eligible to vote in 1867 (as per the Fifteenth Amendment—see February 26, 1869) are not allowed to register. Almost all African-Americans were slaves in 1867, and were not allowed to vote. The American Civil Liberties Union will later write, “[T]he measure effectively disfranchises all black voters who cannot read or write or who do not own more than $300 in property.” [School, 2011; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Louisiana State Legislature, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court upholds a Mississippi law requiring citizens to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. The Williams v. Mississippi decision holds that such tests do not violate the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869) as long as they are applied equally to all prospective voters. The literacy test stemmed from a state “Constitutional convention” that codified a “compromise” between white slaveowners and those who opposed their iron control of the Mississippi state government. The compromise would declare all illiterate Mississippi citizens as ineligible to vote, but the real purpose of the convention—to disenfranchise blacks—was well known. James Kimble Vardaman, who would later become governor, said of the convention: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n_gger from politics; not the ignorant—but the n_gger.” White Republican Marsh Cook challenged the Democrats for a seat to the convention and was murdered in response. The only African-American delegate to the convention, Isaiah Montgomery, was invited because of his willingness to support disenfranchisement. The convention established the literacy test, establishing as a proper test the reading of any selected section of the Mississippi Constitution, or giving a valid explanation of it once it was read to the voter. Registrars would interpret the success or failure of the voters’ attempts to pass the test. Since all Mississippi registrars are white, the likelihood that even a literate African-American would pass the test was slim at best. However, the Court ignores the intent of the law to disenfranchise blacks, writing: “[T]he operation of the constitution and laws is not limited by their language or effects to one race. They reach weak and vicious white men as well as weak and vicious black men, and whatever is sinister in their intention, if anything, can be prevented by both races by the exertion of that duty which voluntarily pays taxes and refrains from crime.” Other states, mainly Southern, will quickly adopt their own version of literacy tests. [PBS, 2002; PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: James Kimble Vardaman, Marsh Cook, US Supreme Court, Isaiah Montgomery

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court overrules Oklahoma’s “grandfather clause” law in the case of Guinn v. United States, finding the law unconstitutional. The Oklahoma law is similar to laws passed in Louisiana and other states (see 1896) in order to ensure that African-Americans cannot legally vote regardless of the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869). Illiterate males can vote only if they can prove their grandfathers had the right to vote. Since almost all African-Americans were slaves during that time, it is impossible for almost all African-Americans to prove their grandfathers had the right to vote. Illiterate white men, however, can often prove their grandfathers could vote. [PBS, 12/2006; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Women and men gather to protest for the right of women to vote, 1848.Women and men gather to protest for the right of women to vote, 1848. [Source: Declaration of Sentiments 1848 (.com)]The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress and ratified just over a year later, grants the right of women to vote. Because women now play a fundamental part in elections and campaigns, campaign financing and practices are dramatically expanded and changed. [Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file; The Constitution: Amendments 11-27, 2012; Doug Linder, 2012] Women have been organizing for the right to vote at least since the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848. Women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony declared in 1852 that “the right women needed above every other… was the right of suffrage.” Suffragists tried and failed to win the right of “universal suffrage” during the debates on the so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” (see February 26, 1869) that granted the right to vote and other rights to male minority members. An amendment granting the right to vote has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1878. Western states such as Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho were the first to grant women the right to vote; former President Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party was the first to proclaim its support for women’s suffrage in its party planks. Southern states were the primary opponents to the amendment. The Amendment will be ratified by a single vote in the Tennessee state legislature in August 1920 (24-year-old lawmaker Harry Burns will cast the deciding vote, carrying a letter from his mother urging him to “be a good boy” and “vote for suffrage”), and will become law later that month. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Doug Linder, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Bull Moose Party, Harry Burns, Susan B. Anthony

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court stops political parties in Texas from discriminating based on race. In the case of Smith v. Allwright, the Court rules that the Texas Democratic Party may not prohibit African-Americans from membership and from participating in primary elections. The Court bases its ruling on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), and overturns its decision in the 1935 Grovey v. Townsend case. [PBS, 12/2006; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Texas Democratic Party

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal court rules in King v. Chapman that whites-only primary elections in Georgia are unconstitutional. The court rules, “The exclusions of voters made by the party by the primary rules become exclusions enforced by the state and when these exclusions are prohibited by the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869) based on race or color, the persons making them effective violate under color of state law a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States within the meaning of the statute.” [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), the VRA is a potent set of statutes that permanently bars direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities. It bans any election practice that denies the right to vote due to race, and requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The VRA forbids literacy tests (see 1896, April 25, 1898, and June 8, 1959) and other barriers to registration that have worked to stop minority voters from exercising their rights (see 1888, June 21, 1915, and February 4, 1964). Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA work together to prohibit states from establishing voting qualifications or standards that interfere with a citizen’s right to vote on a racial basis. Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering any laws pertaining to voting—this includes changing electoral districts, voter qualification rules, and even changes in government structure such as making a formerly elective office appointive. If the changes can be seen as possibly “diluting” minority voting strength, they can be disallowed. States wishing to challenge the VRA restrictions have the opportunity to have their cases heard in federal court. Section 2 has similar, if less restrictive, provisions that apply nationally. Section 10 of the VRA takes direct aim at the Breedlove ruling from the Supreme Court (see December 6, 1937), which had legitimized poll taxes used to disenfranchise minority voters. That portion of the VRA finds that poll taxes “impose… unreasonable financial hardship” and “precludes persons of limited means from voting.” The VRA also forbids the use of literacy tests, good character tests, and other such tests used in the past to suppress minority voting. The law urges the attorney general to urge the Court to overrule Breedlove; minutes after Johnson signs the bill into law, he directs the attorney general “to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax.” The Court will find poll taxes unconstitutional in its Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruling (see March 24, 1966). The US Department of Justice and the federal courts now have the power to monitor problem jurisdictions and assist private citizens in seeking redress through the courts if their voting rights are infringed. Months later, the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the VRA. [eNotes, 2004; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Yale Law School, 2/8/2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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