These Landmark Cases Give Perspective to Protests on Discrimination and Justice Nominations
By Dr. Nathan Hardy
Recent events such as the George Floyd case, new state laws that restrict voting, and appointments of multiple United States Supreme Court Justices with similar political leanings have prompted calls to improve our society. Even businesses, increasingly driven by corporate social responsibility, have joined the calls like never before. Some feel that the country is in a pivotal era of equity and discrimination, and a review of the top landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases of Black American history may justify this.
A pattern in which a streak of conservative or liberal judge-appointing Presidents can lead to a U.S. Supreme Court heavily leaning to the one ideological side of those Presidents, such as from late 1800s to early 1930s when hardly any landmark cases were in favor of Black American civil rights. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that set the precedent for racial segregation was possible in part because the judges appointed by Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and Rutherford Hayes who sought more rights for Black Americans were gone. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in the 1930s was first to have Black Americans in significant administration positions with his “Black Cabinet,” ultimately appointed every member on the United States Supreme Court in his four presidential terms and his predecessor President Harry Truman’s two terms. This led to a stretch of landmark cases—an unusually high number with unanimous decisions—in favor of fair inclusive treatment of Black Americans (and all Americans) and fuel for the historic civil rights movement.
Following are landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases of Black American history like a Top 10 list but with 16, or a Sweet 16. The cases are ranked according to how often they were chosen by students of the diversity-certified business course Black Americans in Business and Society (BUS 220) and the year of the case.
1. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954): By unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, this case granted equal education to Black Americans and ruled against school segregation. “This case promoted positive race relations in America by allowing blacks to be able to have the same education as whites and have it in the same space,” Jefferson Ofori, a senior Marketing major said, noting that segregated schools were unconstitutional. “Howard High. Back in the day, in Delaware that was one of the only black schools that African Americans could attend,” sophomore Business Administration major Deja Guy said. “Thurgood Marshal was the chief attorney of the plaintiff and consistently pushed to get the justice that the young African American students deserved,” said Tamir Ware, a senior Liberal Arts major, “started a mountain of protest and movements.”
2. Loving v. Virginia (1967): Another unanimous decision case, Virginia laws that barred interracial marriage were struck down (the state also barred interracial sex), setting precedent to strike down similar laws in other states. “The fact that the grand jury had a problem with this and charged the interracial couple with jail time, is ridiculous. It aggravates me that they would punish a couple in love like this,” Colin Lane stated, a freshman majoring in Sports Management. “All my girlfriends have been the opposite race. But picking on an experience that is close to me is my uncle and aunt. My uncle is a black man, and my aunt is a white female,” Jerrod Rountree said, a senior majoring in Business Administration with a Finance minor. “They showed police their marriage certificate and they were told that it was not valid in Virginia. They were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on one condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for at least 25 years,” senior Psychology major Waheem Lowman added. “In 2015 interracial marriages were 16% compared to the 0.4% in 1960, almost 50 years after the case.”
3. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): Under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, slaves were considered property and not citizens. The upholding of this Amendment heightened tensions regarding slavery that eventually led to the Civil War. Senior Marketing major Malik Stewart proclaimed, “This is the reason why we still fight for our rights because of cases like these.”
4. State of Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada, University of Missouri (1938): The case involved a Black man denied law school entry and Missouri’s plan to instead pay for his out-of-state education was inadequate. In a 6-2 decision, the only two dissenting judges were not appointed by sitting President Franklin Roosevelt but by earlier Presidents unsupportive of providing Black Americans more equitable rights. “I feel as though the
University of Missouri sparked the unfairness of how African Americans were being treated,” Nathaniel Nicholson said, a junior majoring in Business Administration with a Finance minor.
5. Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): By unanimous decision, the case involved discrimination against the Shelley family and outlawed race-based policies for selling residential housing property. “The people in the area wanted them to move because they didn’t allow African or Asian Americans in their community,” said Raiven Williams, a sophomore Business Administration and International Management major with a minor in Marketing.
6. Smith v. Allwright (1944): The case deemed the Texas law for all-white political primaries that excluded Black Americans and disenfranchised voters unconstitutional. In her senior year about to graduate with a Communication and Digital Media degree, Alexis Lomax feels the case “relates to some of the current events going on right now. As of last week, some states like Georgia are trying to put limitations on voting and what kind of people can vote. I find this to be truly unfair and somewhat unconstitutional.”
7. Terry v. Ohio (1968): Although racial profiling and police mistreatment of Black Americans are topics still debated today, this case of a frisking of a Black American found the police in violation of the Fourth Amendment that protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.
8. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969): Klu Klux Klan hate speech was considered illegal if it incited "imminent lawless action." Majoring in Liberal Arts, junior Dominique Price-Jones explained, “Brandenburg was convicted because he incited violence (against black people) through his speech.” She added, “Brandenburg was found innocent and the Supreme Court established that he did not incite or produce ‘imminent lawless action’ due his right of freedom of speech.”
9. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): This infamous case set the precedent for racial segregation with “separate but equal” provisions for Black Americans.
10. Sweatt v. Painter (1950): The University of Texas created a separate area in three basement rooms with a small library for a Black student to be lectured alone. But the unanimous decision case prevented the university from circumventing court orders to provide equal education facilities for Black Americans.
11. Browder v. Gayle (1956): Alabama public transportation segregation laws were found to be unconstitutional in this case that made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks famous, though neither person was a plaintiff.
12. Cooper v. Aaron (1958): This unanimous decision case helped end racial discrimination in states in the South and elsewhere as it declared states could not nullify and disobey decisions of federal courts.
13. Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964): Among the first to uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the unanimous decision case ruled against discrimination in lodging and public accommodations.
14. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978): In a case with claims of reverse racism, the court ruled that colleges have a legitimate cause to promote diversity.
15. Strauder v. West Virginia (1879): In the trial involving a Black man, the state law that required only white jurors was struck down, allowing people the right to a jury of their peers.
16. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971): The attention paid to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas often overshadows this case that integrated schools via busing as many places, particularly in the South, waited as long as the 1970s to finally integrate schools.
Hopefully, these U.S. Supreme Court cases have provided historical perspective for the latest developments regarding racism, discrimination, equity, and justice. The diversity-certified course Black Americans in Business and Society (BUS 220) covers such topics each week and will be offered this Fall 2021. Which of these great cases best relate to recent events? Which interest you the most? What experiences related to these cases have you or someone you know had?