Rollback of Reconstruction: Court Cases

Here are some of the legal decisions that undermined Reconstruction and made possible the return of white supremacy:

1873: The Slaughter-House Cases -   in a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did NOT place the rights of citizens under federal protection and denied that the national government could interfere with a state's "right" to FAIL to protect civil rights of citizens.  This judgment rolled the clock back on post Civil War federal/state relations by reviving the concept of dual citizenship developed in the Dred Scott decision.  It reduced the "privileges and immunities" of national citizenship to such limited rights as the right to petition the federal government for redress of grievances and to have protection on the high seas.  The states were made responsible for all other "privileges and immunities" – including the right to be protected from mob violence when exercising Constitutional rights.  If a state chose not to protect its citizens, that was its business.

1876: US v. Cruikshank – the US Supreme Court by 9-0 ruled on behalf of 96 members of a white mob who had massacred 60 black members of a posse who were guarding a courthouse in Louisiana .  The defendants had been charged with interfering with the black posse's rights of assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws.  According to the Court, it was up to the states, not the federal government, to protect the posse, and since the massacre was perpetrated by private citizens, not state officials, the attackers should go free.    

1878: Hall v. DuCuir – the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8) prevented the states from prohibiting segregation on interstate railroads. 

1883: Civil Rights Cases – the Supreme Court, with one dissenting vote, declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.  The decision asserted that Blacks must no longer "be the special favorite of the laws."  The dissent was written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who argued that private racial discrimination was a badge of servitude which violated the Thirteenth Amendment. 

1886: Santa Clara Co. v. Southern Pacific Railroad – the Supreme Court declared that a corporation was a "person" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Between 1889 and 1918, of the nearly 800 Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the courts, only 14 involved the rights and liberties of individuals.  The rest concerned the "freedom" of corporations.    

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson – in its ruling the Supreme Court said that racial segregation was legal if facilities for the races were "separate but equal."  In his dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan claimed that "the thin disguise of 'equal' accommodation...will not mislead anyone nor atone for the wrong this day done."

In this period, the Supreme Court also ruled unanimously that citizenship did not give people the privilege of voting, that much of the civil rights legislation passed by the Reconstruction Congress was unconstitutional, and that a Mississippi plan to take the vote away from black people was NOT unconstitutional.  When the Court in Cumming v. Georgia ruled in 1899 that a white high school did not have to be closed because a school district did not have the funds to maintain a school for African Americans, the myth of "separate but equal" was fully exposed.