The Supreme Court was instrumental in bringing about change especially towards the latter end of the period, through landmark decisions and affirmations. Cases such as Plessy v. Fergusson, Brown v Board and the statement of a lower court ruling Browder v. Gayle. The initial power of judicial review was granted to Supreme Court justices by themselves in Plessy v. Fergusson 1896, allowing some sense of judicial lawmaking.
This was the first significant case regarding civil rights and saw the court take the side of segregation, ruling in favor of a Louisiana law permitting the separation of White Americans and African Americans in hotels, restaurants, hospitals and other public places, establishing the “separate but equal doctrine.”
This tied into the pre-existing Jim Crow Laws which were state and local de jure racial segregation that was enacted in 1877. The specific law which stood in Louisiana regarding the rights of African Americans was as follows: “any person who shall rent any part of any such building to a Negro person or a Negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a Negro person or Negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.”
Initially it appears that the Supreme Court was damaging to the movement and at first it was, however as the personnel in the court changed throughout the early 20th century, a more open-minded court became present. This was extremely evident in Brown v Board 1954. Under the new Chief Justice Earl Warren, the now more liberal court ruled in favour of Brown, desegregating schools.
Warren stated that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” as segregated education is inherently unequal. By ruling in favour of Brown the court showed their willingness to detach themselves from the status quo. The initial reaction was filled with optimism as “Black newspapers hailed the court’s actions” as even individuals who regretted the decision called for a calm acceptance of the ruling, in particular, “Governor Frances Cherry of Arkansas declared: “Arkansas will obey the law. It always has”” as well as Jim Folsom of Alabama stating:
“When the Supreme Court speaks, that’s the law”.
This highlights the importance of the court in the civil rights movement, as their verdicts were law and decisions such as this changed the landscape of the movement entirely as the precedent could not argue with unless the court ruled against their previous decision. Although with such a major ruling the court showed its intentions and was therefore highly unlikely of returning to previous outlooks. Despite schools not fully desegregating initially due to there being no time frame on such, the impact of this decision was huge.
By giving African Americans the chance to gain the equal education, it placed them on an equal playing field with the rest of the population regarding qualifications which have a knock-on effect to gaining higher paid jobs and creating a more successful life for themselves.
Although other barriers of racism were not broken, the access to education was detrimental to the other walls coming down. Nelson Mandela was quoted saying “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and in this instance he is correct.
The Warren Court showed their support once again for the civil rights movement in 1956 by affirming a decision in a lower court which declared the segregation of the Montgomery Bus System illegal, in the case of Browder v Gayle 1956. This ensured Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King’s success, along with thousands of other African Americans, in sustaining the bus boycott in the face of extreme violence. Although the key individuals – Parks and MLK were the catalyst for this protest, their efforts would have proven almost worthless had the court not affirmed the lower court’s ruling in their favor.
The court’s actions here showed their support for the cause and allowed the movement to continue at speed it did towards the end of the suggested period and ultimately towards more equal rights for African Americans. To echo the importance of this ruling, the Montgomery bus protests and Rosa Parks would not be held in such high esteem for their effect on the civil rights movement had it not been for the court’s ruling.