The Civil Rights Movement for the rights of African-Americans in the United States is an example of a struggle that has employed both litigation and social action. After seven decades of enduring Jim Crow laws enacted by Southern States following the Civil War, that sanctioned segregated schools and public accommodations, denial of the right to vote, and other discriminatory treatment, in the late 1940s and early 1950s American Blacks began to challenge the injustices they faced in the courts. Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) planned and carried out a multi-year litigation strategy designed to put an end to legally sanctioned racial segregation in educational institutions.
In one of the early desegregation cases, Sweatt v. Painter (1950), an African-American who wanted to attend the University of Texas Law School was denied admission solely because of his race. The State of Texas had established an all-Black law school to provide “separate but equal” legal education to non-Whites, purportedly in compliance with an earlier Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that had upheld racially-segregated seating in railroad cars provided that the separate accommodations were “equal” to those afforded to Whites. Sweatt’s attorneys offered proof that the Black law school was inferior to the University of Texas Law School. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Sweatt’s lawyers, and ordered the University of Texas to admit him.
In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided another case involving segregation in a public university, McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950). The Oklahoma State University had admitted McLaurin, a Black citizen of the state, because the Black state colleges did not have comparable programs. However, the university required McLaurin to sit in isolated seats in the classrooms, library, and cafeteria, separate from the other students. McLaurin’s lawyers argued that this policy failed to provide him “equal” educational facilities, and a unanimous Supreme Court agreed.
The Sweatt and McLaurin cases laid the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that in public education “separate” was inherently not “equal,” and therefore that all legally-mandated public school racial segregation was unconstitutional.
In its decision in Brown, the Supreme Court signaled the end of legally sanctioned segregation in the United States. But it would take years of social action, inspired by the Brown decision, to end segregation in public accommodations and the denial of voting rights to Black Americans. Inspired by the Brown decision, African-Americans, together with liberal and progressive White Americans, many of them students, exerted pressure on the legal and political system through social mobilization, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, sit-ins, marches, Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and other non-litigation and extra-legal forms of advocacy. These actions often resulted in well-publicized beatings and the imprisonment of civil rights activists, as well as urban riots and the assassinations of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, before the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and voting, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.
Throughout the stormy, dramatic, often violent years of the Civil Rights Movement, lawyers played an active role in support of the movement, providing legal representation to those who were arrested, filing lawsuits to enjoin public officials from interfering with or failing to provide protection for those who were asserting their rights, providing legal assistance to activists seeking law reform and social change, and bringing strategic litigation designed to implement and advance victories won in the streets and in the halls of the legislature.