Aaron Snurkowski


The civil rights movement was the most important movement in US history, but all of these laws could not have been made or amended if it
was not for many influential court cases. These cases paved the way toward blacks having a better rights which created a better America overall. During
this era of time, lawyers worked hard to determine the validity of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. There were many discrepancies between what the blacks believed was right and what the whites believed was right (based on amendments). Lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, who worked on the Brown v. Board of Education case, worked against the powerful, white lawyers to not only win some very difficult cases but to also make areas of discrimination even in the United States. The civil rights era was hard fought in court, but the outcome was much different then those assumed in that time. Many changes were made for the betterment of the blacks and black culture, allowing all to be equal in the USA.


Without court cases, the civil rights movement would have never made it's mark in the United States. All of the civil rights court cases are the reason that many amendments were made to the constitution, therefore the court cases are the most important part of the civil rights movement.

United States v. Stanley (Background and document used in court)

United States v. Stanley was a hugely significant case that was judged using the first and second section of the “Civil Rights Act of 1875”. Before discussing this case, here are the details of the first and second section:
“Section 1. That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to theconditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every raceand color, regardless of any previo
us condition of servitude.

Sec. 2. That any person who shall violate the foregoing section by denying to any citizen, except for reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, and regardless of any previous condition of servitude, the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges in said section enumerated, or by aiding or inciting such denial, shall, for every such offense, forfeit and pay the sum of $500 to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered in an action of debt, with full costs; and shall, also, for every such offense, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not less than $500 nor more than $1,000, or shall be imprisoned not less than 30 days nor more than one year: Provided, that all persons may elect to sue for the penalty aforesaid, or to proceed under their rights at common law and by state statutes; and having so elected to proceed in the one mode or the other, their right to proceed in the other jurisdiction shall be barred. But this provision shall not apply to criminal proceedings, either under this act or the criminal law of any state: And provided, further, that a judgment for the penalty in favor of the party aggrieved, or a judgment upon an indictment, shall be a bar to either prosecution respectively.” (West)

Ruling of Stanley Case

In the Stanley case, Matthew Stanley was an African American who sued many different private institutions, such as theaters, hotels and transit companies for racial discrimination. Stanley stated in this case that discrimination was unconstitutional based off the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the equal protection clause, all of which is stated above the the first section. After many arguments, the US Supreme court found that the 14th amendment did not give congress the right to regulate private acts made by private citizens or businesses.(West) It only found that they were able to take action against governmental agencies, based on the wording of the 14th amendment. This marked the beginning of the fight for civil rights. In the middle of this case, (which did not get solved until 1964) the court found that the amendments did prevent anyone from owning any slaves but congress felt that it would be unreasonable to force private businesses and establishments to stop discriminating against people based on their race.(West) Race was a huge factor in that day and age, which leads to another very influential court case which happened about 13 years after “United States v. Stanley”.

Plessy v. Ferguson (Background and Local Court Ruling)

Plessy v. Ferguson is one of the biggest lost cases for blacks that happened during this time period. In 1890, Louisiana passed the “Separate Car Act” which was basically that whites and blacks had to ride in different train cars. Many did not agree with this law at all, so a group of white, creole and black New Orleans citizens created a group called the Committee of Citizens. They made this group to repel the law and fight it’s effects. They needed someone to help them participate in a few “field tests”. Enter Homer Plessy, a “octoroon” meaning they are 7/8 European descent and 1/8 African descent (C.R. in US), and also that they were born free. Under Louisiana law, Plessy was still considered a black man and had to ride in the colored car. Finally there came a day where Plessy participated in the field tests. Plessy bought a first class ticket for the train at Press Street Depot, where he then proceeded to board a whites only train. At this rail station though, things were a little different. This rail station had not agreed with the law, purely because they did not want to buy more railcars. The station had been in contact with the Committee of citizens and were informed prior to Plessy’s arrival about his intent to challenge the law. Also, the committee had hired a detective with the powers/rights to arrest Plessy, to ensure that he was arrested for violating the Separate Cars act, not another charge. So, Plessy took a seat in the whites-only railway car and he was immediately asked to vacate his seat and move the blacks only railway car. He refused and he was immediately detained. Plessy was held until a court date was available. When Plessy’s court date came around, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the state law which required Louisiana railroads to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the 13th and 14th amendments. However, the judge presiding the cases, John Ferguson, ruled that the state was allowed to segregate railcars if they were within state boundaries. Plessy was convicted and was made to pay a 25$ fine. He immediately sought sought writ of prohibition, meaning the case was going to Supreme Court. (West)

Plessy arrives at Supreme Court

The case was then taken to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, where the court still ruled in favor of John Ferguson. The court ruled that what had happened did not violate the 14th amendment.(Mac) The court based this off of 2 states, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, two northern state that had abolished slavery. For the first part of this, where Plessy said this was a racial occurrence, the court used a law passed in 1894 in Massachusetts, that segregation of schools was constitutional. It stated "This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law and cannot be changed by law.” By using this already ruled case in Massachusetts, Louisiana had the upper hand on Plessy, basically getting the jury to disregard the racial part of this. The next thing the court used was a law that Pennsylvania had passed, making railcars segregated. In that case, Pennsylvania stated "To assert separateness is not to declare inferiority... It is simply to say that followingthe order of Devine Providence, human authority ought not to compel these widely separated races to intermix.”(Mac) This was a brutal blow for Plessy in this case. The court had used laws from other states that had been used for years. The court voted 7-1 to reject Plessy’s arguments, stating that they found all his rights were intact and did not violate the 14th amendment. The loss of this case was a huge loss for black americans, but all things that are made can be changed, and this case was changed about 40 years later, in one of the biggest court cases in United States history.

Brown v. Board of Education (Background and First Hearing)

Brown v. Board of Education was the most ground-breaking case at the time. This was the case that desegregated schools forever. Here is how the case happened: for much of the 40 years since the Plessy case had ended, blacks had been treated terribly. Enter Oliver Brown, who was a parent that had a daughter Linda. Linda was a third grader who was African American, who had to walk 6 blocks to get to her bus stop and then have a mile bus ride before she got to school, but there was a white school that was only 7 blocks away, walking distance. (West) Oliver Brown convinced his family friend Scott and around 12 others who had children at the school and lived in the same neighborhood to help in filling one of the most ground-breaking lawsuits in US History.

When the case first came in session, Brown stated that he and the others had attempted to enroll their children in the nearest school in the neighborhood, but were denied because of the color of their skin, then directed to the nearest segregated school. In the district court system, there was not much discussion. The court came to a conclusion very quickly that Brown had no case and was not going to win. In a matter of a few days, the court ruled accordingly, citing the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The Plessy case was ruled by the Supreme Court that it was constitutional to have “separate but equal” railway cars for blacks and whites. Brown knew that he had lost in District Court but he knew the court would rule differently if he went to Supreme Court.

When Brown and all of his Plaintiffs made it to Supreme Court, his case was combined with 5 other cases, 4 of them with the same outcome that Brown had in District Court. All of the 5 cases were sponsored by the NAACP, which was an organization that was helping to desegregate America. The main lawyer in this case was Thurgood Marshall, a man of great intelligence. They started the first hearing in the spring of 1953 but nothing was decided during this time, so the Justice’s asked to adjourn the court and schedule the hearing for the fall of 1953.

Second Hearing (Brown v. Board)

In the fall of 1953, the court heard the hearing, paying special attention to the clause of the 14th amendment, the equal protection clause, to see if they should add that segregation of whites and blacks would be prohibited in the USA. Thurgood Marshall had a very good argument in this case and the people he had working for him persuaded the justices very well. The counter-argument was also very good so this case took sometime before the justices could give the final verdict on the case. This was until Justice Warren decided to give a very persuasive speech to the other justices and to the senate, knowing they would have to get the senate approval before any constitutional items could be changed. After Justice Warren gave this speech, the choice became unanimous. When the court came back together, the justices ruled that segregation of schools in the USA was unconstitutional, shifting the landscape, segregation wise, in the USA. This called for many changes to happen, the first one was to overturn the Plessy case. The next was to tell all that racial segregation was a violation of the equal protection clause and of the 14th amendment. At this point in time, this was the biggest win that the Black americans had to date, they had finally proved that they were being treated unfairly, changing the course of history forever.


In the course of the civil right era, court cases were one of the most dominate precursors to having the laws changed and to make a better America. From the Stanley case, where Stanley fought to have more rights when he went to establishments such as hotels and other businesses, all he wanted to do was be treated equal to the whites. Then to Plessy, where he was arrested and detained for going on the white train. Then finally to Brown, where the black got some equality to the whites, allowing the white and black children to go to the same school, being equal and striving to make the future of America better, no matter the color of their skin.

Learn More!

Plessy v. Ferguson

14th Amendment

Thurgood Marshall

Brown v. Board

Supreme Court


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"Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)." Civil Rights in the United States. Ed. Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History in Context. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Robinson, Joseph, Jr. "Brown vs. Board of Education: a personal reflection." Black History Bulletin 67.1-4 (2004): 34+. U.S. History in Context. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Fuller, Sarah B. Brown v. Board of Education : Equal Schooling for All. Hillside: Enslow, 1994. Print. Landmark Supreme Court Cases.