Monthly Archive for May, 2012

Remembering the Force Acts

On May 31, 1870—142 years ago today—Congress passed the first of four Acts designed to protect the constitutional rights provided for under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The Force Act of 1870 designated criminal penalties to those who interfered with the right to vote, whether through intimidation, threats, or other measures. The Act read, in part:

[I]f any person, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, shall hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, or shall combine and confederate with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote or from voting at any election as aforesaid, such person shall for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered by an action on the state, with full costs, and such allowance for counsel fees as the court shall deem just, and shall also for ever such offence be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one more and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the court.

Enacted only five years after the Civil War, the legislation represented an important acknowledgement of the rights and protections due to all citizens, regardless of color. Over the next few years, three more acts would follow. This legislation allowed many thousands of freedmen to register to vote and to be elected to governmental offices.

African Americans soon saw these rights taken away, as Reconstruction gave way to a long period of disfranchisement, characterized by poll taxes, literacy tests, and other such discriminatory measures. Although it would be years before African Americans would once again enjoy protection of their voting rights (see the 24th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act), the Force Acts foreshadowed advancements to come.

To read excerpts from the 1870 and 1871 Force Acts, click here.

For the Encyclopedia Britannica’s summary, click here.

For more about voting rights, click here.

For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here.

For a chronological view of Reconstruction-era policies, click here.

To learn about voting rights in ensuing decades, check out J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (UNC Press, 1999) and Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman’s Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 (Princeton University Press, 1994).

To learn about disfranchisement, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press, 2001).

On This Day: Brown v. Board of Education II

On May 31st, 1955—57 years ago today—the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision revisited its milestone decision from the previous year, submitting an important, though somewhat ambiguous, ruling regarding the time frame and steps necessary to achieve desegregation in public schools.

A year earlier, on May 17th, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education had ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Now, in Brown v. Board of Education II, the Court delegated responsibility to local school authorities and courts to implement the principles laid out in the original Brown decision—and to do so “with all deliberate speed.”

The decision read, in part:

Full implementation of these constitutional principles may require solution of varied local school problems. School authorities have the primary responsibility for elucidating, assessing, and solving these problems; courts will have to consider whether the action of school authorities constitutes good faith implementation of the governing constitutional principles…

While giving weight to these public and private considerations, the courts will require that the defendants make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance with our May 17, 1954, ruling. Once such a start has been made, the course may find that additional time is necessary to carry out the ruling in an effective manner. The burden rests upon the defendants to establish that such time is necessary in the public interest and is consistent with good faith compliance at the earliest practicable date.

Opinions and the ensuing results were mixed. Although the ruling was an important reminder by America’s highest court that segregation was unconstitutional, the ambiguous language was used by some Southern states and school districts to justify delaying or avoiding significant integration for quite some time. Some districts and individual whites found ways around the law, closing schools or sending white students to private schools.

Continue reading ‘On This Day: Brown v. Board of Education II’

On This day: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

On May 31, 1921—91 years ago today—one of the worst racial clashes in American history began in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Tulsa Race Riot—which would claim as many as 300 lives and destroy more 1,000 homes and businesses—began after rumors spread about a May 30th event in an elevator downtown. Although there are several versions of the events, the most common story posits that a 19-year-old African American man accidentally stepped on the foot of a 17-year-old white woman, who, when he reached out to keep her from falling, screamed.

Many whites in the community assumed the African American man had attacked the white woman—a common accusation against African American men at the time. This assumption, coupled with an already tense relationship between the black and white communities, led to disaster.

For 18 hours, armed white men burned and looted the black community, killing countless African Americans in the process. Although many tried to protect homes and businesses from the attacks, they were outgunned and outnumbered by the white mob.

In the end, no whites were sent to prison for the murders and arson they committed during the riot. Estimates of the death toll ranged from 38 to several hundred, and the thousands who lost homes and businesses that day spent a long time rebuilding—while living in tents. In 1997, Oklahoma finally formed a state commission, which ultimately recommended that reparations be paid to remaining survivors. However, efforts to secure reparations have so far been unsuccessful. Today, the riot is memorialized by Reconciliation Park.

The oldest known survivor, Otis Clark, died a week ago at age 109—but the riot remains, to this day, a horrifying symbol of the extreme discrimination, harassment, and violence African Americans faced for decades.

For more information, click here.

To read oral history accounts of the riot, click here.

To learn more, and to view photographs, click here and here.

For articles published at the time, click here and here.

The University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library holds a collection of materials related to the riot.

To learn more about the Tulsa Race Riot, check out Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Louisiana State University Press, 1992) and Alfred Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation (Oxford University Press, 2003).

From the Archives: “The complete destruction of the separate states” — looking at the Civil Rights Act of 1956, part II

This post is the 6th in a series from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing more than 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions.  For more on this digitization project, click here.

This is the second of a two-part series discussing materials related to the Civil Rights Act that have been digitized for the CCC grant from the Basil Lee Whitener Papers.  In the first part, I presented a letter to the editor that discussed the mindset that perpetuated Jim Crow. However, the majority of materials relevant to the long civil rights movement in the Whitener Papers speak to the congressional record.

Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 1, Folder 1: First Page of Statement from Congressman Woodrow Jones Presented to House Rules Committee in opposition to H.R. 627, 1956 (File ID: blwms0101230)

One example is a 1956 statement, the first page of which is shown here. In the statement, Whitener’s predecessor, Congressman Woodrow Jones, speaks to the House Rules Committee in opposition to H.R. 627, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1956.  Taking a hyperbolic rhetorical position, Jones’s speech claims that federal legislation for guaranteeing or reforming Civil Rights would lead to the “complete destruction of the separate states.”

Jones first equates congressional consideration of a Civil Rights Act to the “congressional dictatorship” that had characterized Reconstruction.  Later in his speech, Jones analyzes the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution in an attempt to argue that their statutes do not enable congressional action in the civil rights arena. Jones uses an ad hominem attack to claim that H.R. 627 would set an irrevocable precedent. He argues that the Civil Rights Act would eliminate states’ rights and effectively give the federal government unchecked power.  Jones goes on to contend that such a disturbance in the distribution of power would inherently affect his constituents:

When states [sic] rights are finally destroyed, and I pray God this shall not happen, then the citizens must come running to Washington and beg an all-powerful federal government for redress of their grievances.

Ultimately, analysts of Jones’s speeches will have to explore the question of the authenticity of the states’ rights argument.  Was Jones’s opposition truly rooted in the legalistic issue of states’ rights he gaves in his speech, or did his opposition stem from a fear of social change?  It is my hope that the efforts of the CCC project to digitize archival collections such as the Basil Lee Whitener Papers will lead to further examination of many such questions, and to a stronger understanding of the intersection of official opposition efforts to civil rights reforms and the social context that surrounded those efforts.

By Josh Hager, CCC Graduate Research Assistant

From the Archives: When “you can’t write with the ink” — Looking at the Civil Rights Act of 1956, part I

This post is the 5th in a series from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing more than 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions.  For more on this digitization project, click here.

This is the first of a two-part series discussing materials related to the Civil Rights Act that have been digitized for the CCC grant from the Basil Lee Whitener Papers. This post presents a letter to the editor found in the research files of Congressman Basil Lee Whitener from Mecklenburg County, N.C., who served in office from 1957 to 1969.  This letter, written by concerned citizen H.F. Seawell, provides an illuminating yet disturbing portrait of the mindset that perpetuated Jim Crow.

Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 1, Folder 1 – "A Treatise on Color, With Examples Cited" (file ID blwms01001098)

In 1956, Congress debated H.R. 627, more commonly known as the Civil Rights Act of 1956.  Authored by Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-NY), this bill intended to outlaw the various measures that states had implemented in order to prevent African Americans from voting, such as poll taxes and reading tests.  In his letter opposing H.R. 627, H.F. Seawell composed a “treatise on color” that included such conclusions as: “This country has produced two Washingtons, George and Booker T.  When you try to mix ’em [sic], it is like putting ink in a glass of water, the water is not fit to drink and you can’t write with the ink.”

Seawell’s central thesis was that mixing races would result in ill effects for all parties:  “I love the colored folks. . . . The surest way to ruin a colored man is to force him over to mingling with white folks.  It ruins his personality, destroys his initiative, and corrupts his ‘payrology [sic].'” (As an aside, I cannot determine what Seawell meant by “payrology.”)  This quote demonstrates that Seawell believed segregation to be altruistic, meaning that racists would conversely advocate integration.  To further his erroneous argument, Seawell lists famous African Americans whom he admires such as W.C. Handy, Al Jolson, Ethel Waters, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson.  Seawell might have actually appreciated the contributions of these individuals to their respective fields, but it is notable that he pigeonholed their contributions into entertainment and athletics.  Politics represents a different issue; Seawell claims that African-Americans helped various white figures achieve success, but he does not list any African American political pioneers.  Of course, by arguing that African Americans enabled white success, Seawell’s thesis on the negativity of racial integration inherently fails.  The cognitive dissonance that we find in Seawell’s letter is thus a microcosm of the convoluted logic of the mindset of Jim Crow.

By Josh Hager, CCC Graduate Research Assistant

On This Day: Corrigan v. Buckley and Housing Discrimination

On May 24, 1926—86 years ago today—the Supreme Court through its refusal to hear a case upheld the legality of racially restrictive covenants, ushering in decades of unabated racially motivated housing discrimination.

The case, Corrigan v. Buckley, resulted from a 1921 agreement between thirty white persons who owned 25 parcels of land. These individuals agreed that no part of any of these properties would be sold, leased, or given to anyone of African American descent.

Irene Corrigan in 1922 sold a lot and house to Helen Curtis and her husband Dr. Arthur Curtis, both African American. John J. Buckley brought suit against Corrigan and Curtis in an attempt to prevent the sale, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

Corrigan and Curtis argued that the covenant violated various rights conferred upon citizens by the Constitution of the United States, including the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, stating that constitutional amendments were applicable only to state action rather than individual action, that there was no substantial constitutional or statutory question giving the Court jurisdiction of the appeal, and that it thus could not determine that the covenant was void and discriminatory.

The Supreme Court’s quick dismissal of the case in effect validated the use of racially restrictive covenants—and in fact they became quite common afterwards. It would take decades of legal wrangling before racially restrictive covenants would finally be declared unconstitutional and housing opportunity would finally begin to be equalized (see, for example, the 1940 case Hansberry v. Lee, the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer and the 1968 Fair Housing Act).

However, Corrigan inspired attorneys such as  Charles Hamilton Houston (of Howard University School of Law) and Thurgood Marshall to develop a legal strategy to outlaw such covenants—a struggle that would continue for years, frequently through the work of NAACP attorneys.

Today, the Curtis/Corrigan address is marked by the African American Heritage Trail.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Corrigan v. Buckley, click here.

Records from the case are available through Gale’s The Making of Modern Law: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs collection through paid online access (click here) and in book form (click here).

To learn more about Hansberry v. Lee, click here.

To see a descriptive timeline of the fair housing struggle, click here.

To learn more about racially restrictive covenants, click here.

For more on this topic, check out Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy (ed. John Goering), available through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions collection.

On This Day: First Baptist Church Under Siege

On May 21, 1961—51 years ago today—Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and 1,500 men, women, and children who had gathered at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, faced mob violence at the hands of several thousand white segregationists.

The Freedom Rides had only just begun on May 4th, but the activists had already faced violence in several Southern towns. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Montgomery in support of the freedom riders, planning to address a gathering of movement supporters at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church that evening.

Threats were certainly expected. The initial group of U.S. Marshals sent to guard the church proved too small in number to hold off the angry white mob—which had already begun to set fire to vehicles parked outside and had threatened to set fire to the church. After King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in turn called Alabama’s governor, federal troops ultimately broke up the mob—but only after the men, women, and children had been trapped in the church for nearly the entire night.

In the face of a full-scale riot outside—with fires burning and rocks and bricks flying through the windows—the group inside the church remained firm in their commitment to nonviolence. They sat in the church all night until federal troops were able to escort them safely home.

Their courage and commitment in the face of mob violence provided further momentum to the desegregation movement. Soon afterwards, the Justice Department petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban discrimination on buses and at bus terminals; in September, the orders were issued, and in November the Freedom Rides ended in victory.

To see photos taken inside the church that night, click here, here, and here.

To read the US Marshal Service’s summary of the event, click here.

To see the planned program for the gathering, click here, or navigate from the previous link.

To see news footage of participants singing a hymn amidst the rioting, click here.

To learn more about the Freedom Riders, click here; for a timeline, click here.

For more about this movement, check out Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press 2007), on which PBS’s documentary, Freedom Riders, is based.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press 2010).

On This Day: Romer v. Evans

On May 20, 1996—only sixteen years ago today—the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans struck down a discriminatory amendment to the Colorado state constitution—an amendment which would have denied basic protections to gay and lesbian Coloradans.

Although several Colorado municipalities had previously passed ordinances banning sexual orientation-based discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, and other basic activities and services, Colorado voters in 1992 adopted Amendment 2 to the state constitution, prohibiting legislative, executive, or judicial action in state or local government from recognizing gay and lesbian citizens as a protected class. The shockingly discriminatory amendment read:

No Protected Status Based on Homosexual, Lesbian, or Bisexual Orientation. Neither the State of Colorado, through any of its branches or departments, nor any of its agencies, political subdivisions, municipalities, or school districts, shall enact, adopt, or enforce any statute, regulation, ordinance or policy whereby homosexual lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of or entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination. This Section of the Constitution shall be in all respects self executing.

A state district judge issued an injunction against the amendment. Although the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the district court that the amendment could not pass the strict scrutiny provisions under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the case made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the amendment—which certainly didn’t pass the strict scrutiny test—could not even pass the lesser rational basis test. In other words, the amendment was unconstitutional. The opinion read, in part:

We cannot say that Amendment 2 is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status based enactment divorced from any factual context from which we could discern a relationship to legitimate state interests; it is a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the Equal Protection Clause does not permit …

We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A state cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.

The Court’s decision in Romer v. Evans set the stage for its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws in Texas, and, by extension, in thirteen other states. As such, Romer v. Evans represented a milestone in the struggle for equality, paving the way for the continued fight against discrimination.

To listen to the oral arguments, click here.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court ruling, click here.

For more information, and to view photos and documents, click here.

To read an October 1992 New York Times editorial detailing the discriminatory measures on the ballot—not just in Colorado, but also in Oregon and Portland, Maine—click here.

To read National Organization for Women Vice President Rosemary Dempsey’s 1995 speech against Amendment Two, click here.

To learn more about Lawrence v. Texas, check out Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas (W.W. Norton, 2012).

To learn more about the various Supreme Court cases involving rights and equality for gay and lesbian citizens, check out Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price’s Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court (Basic Books, 2002).

Remembering Homer Plessy

On May 18, 1896—116 years ago today—the Supreme Court in one of its most infamous decisions legally sanctioned racial segregation. The Court’s action would confine African Americans to separate and inferior public facilities for many decades to come.

Plessy v. Ferguson was the result of four years of legal wrangling following the arrest of Homer Plessy, a man who appeared white but was one-eighth African American. In June 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, and sat in the whites-only railroad car in an effort to test Louisiana’s segregation laws.

Plessy was not alone in this fight. Earlier in 1892, a young African American man named Daniel Desdunes, under instruction from a group of elite African American men in New Orleans (the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law), sat down in the “white” car on a train bound for Alabama. Desdunes’ case never made it to trial, because an entirely separate case invalidated his arrest by ruling segregation laws unconstitutional in interstate travel. His actions laid the groundwork for Plessy’s intentional test of the law a few months later.

Plessy, who was convicted of violating the 1890 law providing for separate train cars for whites and African Americans, filed a petition arguing that the law violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

In a 7-to-1 decision  (one justice did not participate), the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s law was constitutional, and that separate facilities for whites and African Americans did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, as long as the facilities were equal.

This affirmation of segregation—from the nation’s highest court, no less—severely restricted African Americans’ civil liberties. State-legislated segregation was not struck down until 58 years later, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Although Plessy—after all his hard work—watched America’s highest court deny him the rights due to all American citizens, his courage inspired many other civil rights activists to fight tirelessly for equality.

In the early twenty-first century, descendants of the original participants in the famous Court case, Keith M. Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, established the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to promote “understanding this historic case and its effect on the American conscience.”

To learn more, click here and here.

To read the majority opinion, click here; to read the dissent, click here.

To learn more about the story of Homer Plessy and protests over segregated transportation, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010).   Kelley will participate in Plessy Day celebrations in New Orleans on June 7, 2012.  Check back here or at the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation website for updates on the event.

Numerous studies detail the history and effects of this case, including Williamjames Hull Hoffer’s Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (University Press of Kansas, 2012) and Keith Medley’s We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (Pelican Publishing, 2003).

To learn about John Marshall Harlan, the only justice to dissent, check out Linda Przybyszewki’s The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan (UNC Press, 1999).

Remembering the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom

On May 17, 1957—55 years ago today—thousands of civil rights demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to urge the federal government to fulfill the promises laid out in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, exactly three years earlier.

The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom brought together 25,000 protesters for a day of songs and speeches, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s moving “Give Us the Ballot” speech (listen and read here).

In the years following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, segregationists had proved unwilling to comply with integration orders—despite the Supreme Court’s insistence in Brown II (1955) that school administrators end segregation “with all deliberate speed.”

On February 14, 1957, civil rights activists urged President Eisenhower to condemn segregationists’ refusal to comply with the integration orders—and the violence that segregationists propagated against African Americans throughout the South. In a letter, the activists warned that if the government did not take a public stand against segregation, activists would congregate in D.C. for a day of prayers, songs, and speeches meant to draw Americans’ attention to the violence and inequality prevalent in the South.

Although the event did not draw as many protesters as the organizers had expected, it was heavily covered in the national press. Ultimately it increased both King’s prominence and Americans’ consciousness of the violence and inequality that were still so common across the South three years after Brown v. Board of Education. It motivated activists to continue to fight for an end to segregation and violence, and foreshadowed the 1963 March on Washington and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

For more information, click here.

To see a newspaper article printed the day after the civil rights protesters wrote to President Eisenhower, click here.

To see a newspaper article printed on the day of the protest, click here.

HarperOne’s collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., includes the “Give Us the Ballot” speech, among others.

For more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., click here.