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A Timeline of United States Supreme Court Cases That Shaped Black American Political History

As Black History Month starts, we’re bound to see conversations, lessons, and information about the history of racism in our nation, how it’s still ongoing, and how we can stop it. Something I’ve learned in race-relations classes and through books is that white people, no matter how liberal-leaning, absolutely cannot be anti-racist without first deeply reflecting on how they are supported by racist institutions (no matter who you are) and trying to delve deeper into our nation’s abhorrent history than our high school history curriculum’s allowed us. 

I’m not done with this process of becoming an anti-racist. I don’t think I ever will be. But, I do think I can help other white people understand how deep-cut racism runs in even our highest, purest, most trusted (at least relatively) system in our government: the Supreme Court. While many know some of these cases, few casual onlookers know all–but lessons can be learned from all of them.

Dred Scott v Sanford (1857) 

Infamous, and for good reason, the Dred Scott case decided that any black person, whether enslaved or free, could not be a citizen and therefore couldn’t use the court’s system for their protection. 

Mull that over. The decision didn’t even allow Dred Scott to argue that living in “free” (anti-slavery) territory made him a free man. They didn’t even really allow him to be a man. 

Overturned by the 13th and 14th amendments (see a breakdown of the 14th amendment below), the Dred Scott decision is just the most well-known policy completely nullifying the humanity of black people of the time. The idea and racism behind the case, however, were everywhere in our then-new nation. Our policy building, our formative years as a nation, were spent with the racist ideology that fueled the Dred Scott decision in every crevice of public policy–which is why it’s so important for white people to truly try and understand the history of these court cases.

Plessy v Ferguson (1896)

One of the most infamous cases in SCOTUS history, Plessy v Ferguson is an ugly scar on the usage of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. In short, the case upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine used in between the reconstruction era and Brown v Board of Education that asserted that segregation was legal (which is defined as “de jure segregation” in legal terms). 

The case allowed a continuance of state-imposed racial segregation and also, although less discussed in history classes, upheld the racist ideals of “pure” versus “unpure” white blood, as Homer Plessy, the man who was segregated against, was 7/8ths white. While this case is an absolute embarrassment when analyzing the humanity of our political system, absolutely everyone should know about it before romanticizing the courts, learning about our current sociological structure (this case was only four generations ago), and understanding how ingrained systemic racism is in the United States. 

Missouri ex rel Gaines v Canada (1938)

This case dealt with affirmative action and equal access to education. The case held that because the state of Missouri established a public university as a form of higher education for black students, these black students had every right to be admitted into law schools after their graduation, regardless of race. 

In my opinion, this case is especially significant because it ruled that intent to provide equal opportunity was not the same as actually doing so. In the present day, we see politicians, public figures, basically anyone who has any power at all promising change–promising to change policing laws, promising to reform the prison system, and promising to lower inequality. At the same time, we rarely see significant and reforming changes once those people have the power they desire. Although we know it’s morally wrong to leave promises unfulfilled, this case sets a precedent that it’s also moot in terms of upholding the constitution. 

There’s a plethora of cases that surround affirmative action, enough for a whole other article, but to delve more into the legal history of race and educational emissions check out this site.

Bolling v Sharpe (1954)

This case might be hard to discern from cases like Brown v Board and Missouri ex rel Gaines for the average student, but it stands out in the reasoning that the Supreme Court used to establish the need for racial equality. More often than not, you’ll see segregation cases and race-related cases in general using the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to determine the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of questionable racial policies. At least, the ones taught in high school rarely stray from the 14th amendment, if I’m remembering correctly.

Bolling v Sharpe, however, used the Fifth Amendment’s establishment of due process of law to guarantee racial equality in public schools in Washington, D.C. The Fifth Amendment assures that no person should be deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” If you’re wanting to know more about due process, I encourage you to watch the video below–it’s a riveting sector of U.S Constitutional law and applies to you more than you might think. What Bolling v Sharpe did was apply the word “liberty” in the Fifth Amendment to racial segregation in schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren was particularly creative with using the Fifth Amendment, as the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to states and Washington, D.C isn’t one. 

My takeaway from this case is that the Constitution is moldable to uphold human rights and liberties if it is wanted by someone in power. Justice Warren’s spread of the Fifth Amendment to race relations is absolute proof that politicians and judges are not as bound to precedent and law as they may like to seem. They may say that their “hands are tied”, or that whatever basic right we’re hoping to be granted isn’t covered by the Constitution, Bolling v Sharpe is one of many cases I personally think can be used to show that our lawmakers and justices can wield a lot more positive power than they currently do when it comes to social justice.

Brown v Board of Education and Brown v Board of Education II (1954)

Arguably one of the most famous Supreme Court cases ever, Brown v Board finally pulled the rug out from under the “separate but equal” doctrine previously upheld in Plessy v Ferguson. Another case with Chief Justice Earl Warren presiding, Brown v Board used the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to begin to dismantle de jure segregation, specifically in schools. 

Brown v Board reasoned that such ingrained legal segregation instilled a sense of inferiority that had a large effect on African American children. While de jure segregation ran much deeper than affecting the self-esteem of Black Americans, this reasoning was derived from social science studies rather than court precedent, and the decision was written in relatively simple language rather than confusing legal jargon because Chief Justice Warren thought the reasoning was necessary for all Americans to understand its logic. The case was one for the people, and honestly, this reasoning of making court decisions accessible to the public should be seen more. 

Brown v Board II decreed that the Brown v Board decision shall be implemented “with all deliberate speed”, which may seem obvious but is a good reminder of how unwilling white society was to integrate (and this was close to one generation ago). This is further seen in the 1958 case Cooper v Aaron, which held Arkansas officials responsible for going through with the integration in schools that they had been avoiding for four years before being scolded by the Supreme Court. Four years–that’s a black Arkansan student’s entire time in high school that was under the shadow of Arkansas’s institutionalized racism.

Loving v Virginia (1967)

Loving v Virginia decided that the banning of interracial marriage was unconstitutional. In 1967. 55 years ago. One generation ago. For ¾ of American history, interracial marriage was banned. Think about that the next time someone claims that racism is far in the past. 

Mobile v Bolden (1979)

As we reach more modern cases in this timeline, we are reminded that racism still runs rampant in our legal system with Mobile v Bolden. The case upheld the at-large elections in Mobile, Alabama that petitioners argued “diluted” the voting strength of black citizens. The court decided that the Fifteenth Amendment (which established Black suffrage) did not include “the right to have black candidates elected” and that only purposeful discrimination demanded slaps on the wrist from the courts. But…what counts as purposeful? 

Mobile v Bolden serves as an example of the racist undertones of our electoral system, which you can learn about here.

There you have it. The history of our courts and race, although complicated and painful at times, needs to be known to grasp the systemic racism that we see today. Especially for white people. These cases can be used to understand our history, they can be used to hold current policymakers accountable, they can be used as examples of how corrupt and ugly one of the most highly-regarded institutions in our nation is. But, above all, they just need to be used. 

Genevieve Andersen

CU Boulder '24

Genevieve is a CU student studying Political Science and French. She loves reading, dogs, and all things outdoors, and in her free time you'll find her on a hiking or ski trail!
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