C. After the Civil War: Jim Crow Laws
In the wake of the Cruikshank and the Civil Rights Cases, a long interregnum in the South began. So-called Jim Crow laws were enacted all across the South and in the North (Klarman, 2004). Jim Crow laws were statutes enacted to enforce segregation between the white and minority populations. These laws covered almost every aspect of life, including public facilities, restaurants, public transportation, health care, education, employment, and social relationships. Violation of Jim Crow laws frequently resulted in criminal prosecution.
Enforcement of Jim Crow laws came to a head in 1896 with the one of the most infamous Supreme Court decisions: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Plessy, an African American, had purchased a ticket on a train within the State of Louisiana. He entered a car reserved for whites. Plessy was arrested, taken to jail, prosecuted, and found guilty. Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in essence, placed its seal of approval on de facto racial discrimination, by approving the doctrine of “separate but equal” and affirming Plessy’s conviction. The Supreme Court ignored the fact that accommodations for African Americans were almost never equal and that it was impossible for African Americans to enforce any equality of treatment. Justice John Marshall Harlan, quite presciently, dissenting in the Plessy decision, noted that Plessy would be become as pernicious as the Dred Scott decision (Hall, 2005).
Through the early 1900s, racial minorities rarely received due process in criminal trials. Despite the problems, Congress made attempts to enforce civil rights through legislation. For example, it was a crime for government officials to engage in a conspiracy to violate civil rights or to deprive a person of his or her civil rights under the color of law (18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242, 35 Stat. 1092, 1909).Well intended as they may have been, these statutes were rarely enforced. This situation was aggravated by the rapid postwar increase in membership and influence of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan (McLean, 1995). Despite these problems, there was still the occasional victory, but usually at great cost.
A noted example occurred during 1919 as a result of race riots in Elaine, Arkansas. A number of sharecropping African Americans held meetings in at the Hoop Spur Church to organize protection from extortive practices of white landowners. In response, the white landowners attacked the sharecroppers. During the clashes, between 100 and 200AfricanAmericans and 5 whites died.A number of African American men were arrested and charged with murder. A “Committee of Seven” whites was appointed to investigate the matter.A lynch mob marched on the jail. The National Guard was summoned in to protect the African Americans. Although the defendants were shielded from the anger of the lynch mob, the subsequent trial was hardly fairer. Witnesses were tortured to compel testimony against the accused. An attorney was appointed for them, but he did not meet with the men before trial. He did not challenge any juror, nor did he ask for separate trials. Moreover, he called no witnesses for the defense, even though they were available. In a 45-minute trial, with the jury deliberating less than 5 minutes, 6AfricanAmericans were found guilty and sentenced to death. Appeals through the Arkansas courts were unsuccessful. Suit for a writ of habeas corpus brought in the federal district court in Arkansas was likewise unsuccessful. Not until the U.S. Supreme Court decided the matter in 1923 was a writ of habeas corpus granted for the wrongful conviction (Moore v. Dempsey, 1923; Hall, 2005; Ryan, 1994a). The Moore v. Dempsey decision foreshadowed changes to come concerning race and the criminal justice system. It was not enough, however, to prevent one of the gravest racially tainted miscarriages of American justice: the Scottsboro Boys cases.
In Scottsboro,Alabama, in 1931, nineAfricanAmerican youth were accused of rape by two white women. The mood of the local community was ugly, and the National Guard had to be called to prevent the defendants from being lynched. At trial, the judge, after stating that he would appoint any attorney in the country to represent the defendants, appointed an attorney who was a renowned alcoholic. Despite the lack of inculpatory medical evidence, the Scottsboro Boys were all convicted and sentenced to death save for one, who was granted a new trial. The Alabama courts denied the appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions for a violation of due process concerning the appointment of the defense attorney (Hall, 2005; Ryan, 1994b).
A second trial in the Alabama courts was scheduled. One of the Scottsboro Boys was again convicted. He was convicted in spite of the following facts: One of the alleged victims recanted, the other victim had been found to have been convicted several times of adultery and fornication, two of the boys had physical limitations preventing them from raping the alleged victims, and the medical evidence again showed that the alleged victims had not been raped. The trial judge set aside the jury’s judgment and recused himself under pressure from the attorney general and the chief justice (Hall, 2005; Ryan, 1994b).
A third trial for the Scottsboro Boys in the Alabama courts was held in 1936. Convictions were again obtained. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a reversal because African Americans had been excluded from jury duty (Hall, 2005; Ryan, 1994b). Even so, a fourth trial was held in Alabama in 1937. Four of the Scottsboro Boys were found guilty of rape. One was found guilty of stabbing a deputy during a jail transfer, and the charges against the remaining four were dropped when a new prosecutor was placed in office. The Alabama governor, cognizant of public opinion, refused to grant a clemency petition after he agreed that “all were guilty or all should be freed” (Hall, 2005; Ryan, 1994b). The Scottsboro Boys case has been considered to be perhaps the ultimate example of racial discrimination and the denial of due process in the American criminal justice system.
During World War II, race became an issue in what is probably one of the most shameful events in American history. More than 100,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and herded into theAmerican version of concentration camps based solely on their race, on the assumption that they might possibly be spies. Even though American officials admitted that there had not been a single case of espionage involving Japanese Americans, the internments continued. Indeed, Japanese Americans volunteered for combat duty in Europe against the Nazis and, in the 442nd Nisei Regiment, amassed numerous battle honors, but still innocent Japanese Americans were criminally prosecuted for failing to report for internment (Irons, 1983; Korematsu v. United States, 1944). Indeed, in the Korematsu decision, a dissenting justice, Frank Murphy, accused the nation of falling into the ugly abyss of racism and compared the United States to Nazi Germany. Only later in the century, when Fred Korematsu brought a civil suit, were the Japanese Americans finally vindicated (Korematsu v. United States, 1984).
Although not a criminal case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) highlights the status of racial minorities in America up to the 1950s. Linda Brown, a young African American girl, was denied enrollment in a white school in Topeka, Kansas, and was required to travel a long distance to attend a black school. Brown brought suit. The lower courts, relying on the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), denied the suit. Brown appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1954, the Supreme Court overruled Plessy and rejected the doctrine of separate but equal, deciding that segregation was inherently unequal (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954; Hall, 2005).