Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Supreme Court, Arbiter of Civil Rights

1 First Street NE

As the highest court of the land, the United States Supreme Court is ultimately where significant, nationwide civil rights advances are made, and sometimes unmade. While Congress has a huge role, too, in advancing (or taking away) civil rights, it is up to the Court to determine how laws are interpreted and enforced.

In 1946, NAACP attorneys William Hastie and Thurgood Marshall came here to argue one of the first 20th-century civil rights cases to make it to the Supreme Court.  The case involved 27-year-old Irene Morgan, a mother of two who, while recovering from a miscarriage, was arrested in the summer of 1944 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus from Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland. Spottswood Robinson III, of the NAACP and Howard University Law School, represented Morgan in the Virginia courts, arguing that the incompatibility of state laws regulating where people could sit served to impede interstate commerce. Although Robinson was unsuccessful, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregating interstate buses indeed posed an unconstitutional "burden on commerce."

Two years later, the Supreme Court found in Shelley v. Kraemer and the DC case Hurd v. Hodge that the enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants violated the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. While African Americans continued to face significant barriers to housing, the real estate industry, banks, and white homeowner associations could no longer rely on the courts to maintain segregation through deed restrictions.

The Supreme Court's 1954 rulings in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and the DC companion case Bolling v. Sharpe struck down segregated schools as unconstitutional, reversing the court's landmark 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that had established “separate but equal” as the law of the land. The court cited Brown v. Board in 1956, when it ruled in the Montgomery, Alabama case Browder v. Gayle that the Constitution prohibited separating intrastate bus passengers by race.  

In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that gerrymandering—in this case, altering the boundaries of Tuskegee, Alabama's electoral district so that it excluded African Americans altogether—violated the 15th Amendment.

The Supreme Court began to effectively dismantle schemes aimed at furthering integration beginning in 1974, when it ruled in Millikan v. Bradley that a suburban school district could not be required to join the city of Detroit in implementing a busing program designed to counter the influence of residential segregation on the area's public schools. The court's 1978 decision in University of California v. Bakke held that racial quotas violated the 14th Amendment, resulting in the erosion of universities' efforts to offer opportunities to minority students. Most recently, in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder (2013), the court eliminated a key requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: that states with a history of preventing African Americans from voting must receive clearance from the federal Department of Justice to change any rules related to elections. Tools such as voter ID laws have since been adopted to suppress the black vote.  

The Greek Revival Supreme Court building dates to 1935.