Landmark Decisions (Part 2)

Landmark Decisions

A CENTURY OF CHANGE (1856-1955)

 Separate But Not Equal
In 1938, the Supreme Court faced another challenge to a state's segregation law when Lloyd Gaines, a black student, sought admission to the white-only State University of Missouri Law School. Pending development of a black-only law school, state law provided that the university could pay for black students to attend school in a neighboring state.

Although the Court affirmed the Plessy decision, it found Missouri's separate out-of-state facilities to not be equal. Chief Justice Hughes explained that the law permitted white law students to attend school in-state, but compelled black law students to seek education out-of-state.

Full Opinion
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada.

Leading Man
Thurgood Marshall played a key role in the civil rights movement long before he was appointed to the US Supreme Court.

As Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund, Marshall coordinated the NAACP effort to end racial segregation.

His Supreme Court victories include Smith v. Allwright, Morgan v. Virginia, Shelley v. Kraemer, Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents and, of course, Brown v. Board of Education.

Beyond Bricks and Mortar
A decade later, the Supreme Court reviewed two more challenges to segregated graduate education programs.

In Sweatt v. Painter, the Court struck down a Texas statute which restricted the University of Texas Law School to white students, even though, the state made available an in-state law school for black students. That same day, in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court also struck down an Oklahoma statute which permitted black students to use the same classroom, library and cafeteria as white students, but required the black students to sit in designated areas reserved for colored people within those facilities.

In both decisions, Chief Justice Vinson noted importance of student interaction to the educational experience. Because both statutes limited the opportunities of black students to study, engage in discussions, and exchange views with white students, the Court found that the black students were not offered a substantially equal educational opportunity.

While the Court declined to re-examine the Plessy decision, their rulings cast serious doubt on the continuing viability of the "separate but equal" doctrine. More importantly, these decisions were issued without dissent.

Full Opinion
Sweatt v. Painter.
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents.

Other Triumphs
In 1946, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to a Virginia law that required all passenger motor vehicle carriers to separate their white and colored passengers.

Finding that the promotion and protection of national travel required a single, uniform rule for the seating of different races in interstate motor travel, the Court struck down the state law because it placed an undue burden on interstate commerce, an area of regulation that the Constitution reserved for Congress. The Court did not mention the Plessy decision.

Two years later, the wall of segregation crumbled further. In Shelley v. Kramer, the Shelleys, a black family, purchased a home that was subject to a racially restrictive covenant. This covenant barred persons of African and Asian descent from occupying the property. A neighbor sued to enforce the covenant against the Shelleys.

The Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive agreements alone are not unconstitutional because there has been no discriminatory state action. However, state action will be found if a court orders the enforcement of such an agreement. Under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, such a court order is unconstitutional.

These two decisions opened the nation's highways and homes to a race once enslaved. Within a decade, the high court would further repel the forces of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, another landmark decision.

Full Opinion
Morgan v. Virginia
Shelley v. Kraemer

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