A Brief History of Race Relations in the United States
The Constitution, the Court and Race Relations
In 1619, a Dutch ship came to port in the British colony of Jamestown. After many weeks at sea, the crew was running low on food, and they agreed to exchange the twenty captured African slaves aboard their craft for cash and supplies.1 The Africans who emerged from the Dutch vessel would go on to labor as indentured servants at Jamestown. They were but the first of approximately 500,000 African slaves that would be brought to North America between 1619 and 1808.2
What began in Jamestown as a simple exchange of food for labor marked the beginning of a significant chapter in American history. The events that have transpired in the wake of that fateful occurrence have at times been horrifying and at others elating. Throughout the long, checkered history of race relations in the United States, one can clearly discern both man’s inestimable capacity for evil and the indomitable nature of his character. The history of the struggle between these two human faculties is written, not only in the blood of slaves and masters, but also in the Constitution of the United States and the decisions of the judicial body charged with the task of interpreting it.
The Constitutional Convention
By 1787, the institution of slavery was well established throughout the United States. In fact, slave populations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were larger than their white counterparts.2 When the delegates convened in Philadelphia to discuss needed changes to the Articles of Confederation, they did so with the knowledge that any serious attempt to abolish slavery throughout the United States would lead to the disintegration of the union.
The Three-Fifths Compromise
Realizing the futility of any effort to abolish slavery at the convention, James Wilson of Pennsylvania approached John Rutledge of South Carolina to discuss possible avenues of cooperation between large states and slave states. The two men worked out a compromise whereby slave states would support proportional representation in the legislature, if the large states supported an effort to have slaves counted as three-fifths of a person in the same proportional system of representation.3 The resulting alliance between large states and slave states proved extremely effective, and evidence of the three-fifths compromise can still be found in Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.
Fugitive Slave Clause
Article 4, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that any “…Person held to Service or Labour in one State…” must be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service of Labour may be due.” Although the Constitution euphemistically replaces the word slavery with the word service, there can be no mistake about the intent of the section. As it was written in 1787, the U.S. Constitution required states that had abolished slavery to render fugitive slaves back to their masters. The fugitive slave clause would serve as a difficult impediment to those attempting to escape captivity in the decades to follow.
The Slave Trade Clause
Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution is equally troubling. The section states that the “…Importation of Such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…”4 Again, the Constitution refers to slaves as “such persons”, but the intent of the section is clear. In order to preserve the union, delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed to allow the slave trade to continue uninterrupted, and largely unregulated, for another thirty years.
The Antebellum Court
Since the Constitution included measures that were obviously intended to recognize and protect the institution of slavery, there was little reason for the Supreme Court to address the issue one way or the other during the republic’s formative years. However, an extremely vocal minority of abolitionists in the northern states would eventually bring the subject of slavery and race relations onto the court’s docket.
Prigg v Pennsylvania
In an effort to gradually abolish slavery throughout the state, Pennsylvania enacted a law to prevent blacks from being forcibly removed from the state. A man by the name of Edward Prigg acted in violation of that statute when he attempted to capture a black woman who had been claimed as property by a slave owner in Maryland.5 Prigg was indicted for kidnapping and later appealed his case to the Supreme Court. In an eight-to-one decision, the Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions of Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery statute violated the fugitive slave clause of the United States Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.5 Edward Prigg’s indictment was overturned, and certain sections of Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law of 1826 were nullified. However, Justice Story also stipulated that the federal government was powerless to compel state authorities to enforce federal law.5 As a result, the Pennsylvania legislature began passing laws that expressly forbid state officers from cooperating with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
Dred Scott v Sanford
The issue of race came before the Supreme Court again in 1856 when a man named Dred Scott, who lived in a state wherein slavery had been abolished, attempted to sue his master for refusing to acknowledge his freedom.6 In a seven to two decision, the court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to act on Scott’s case, because the Constitution states that only citizens may file suit in federal court. On the subject of the citizenship status of Africans, Chief Justice Taney wrote that blacks are “…beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”6 The court also ruled that a slave owner could not be deprived of property simply for bringing a slave into a state or territory wherein slavery had been outlawed.
The Reconstruction Amendments
In 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation freeing all slaves held captive in the secessionist states. However, the task of abolishing slavery was not complete until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized the full citizenship status of African Americans and commanded that every state afford its citizens, white and black alike, equal protection under the laws of the federal government and the individual states. Finally, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. The amendment explicitly forbids the states from denying citizens access to the ballot box on the basis of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”7
While northern Republicans had successfully ended slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War, race relations were still terribly strained. Many private business owners began to display “whites only” signs in their shop windows, and they refused to provide goods and services to African Americans. In time, the segregation occurring in restaurants and theaters would be expanded by state legislatures when they began creating separate school systems and seating arrangements for public transportation. Some state governments simply refused to enforce their own laws when African Americans were the victims of violations of those laws. Additionally, state governments began implementing voting laws, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, designed to suppress and intimidate African American voters. In time, these practices would come to the attention of the US Supreme Court.
Civil Rights Cases
The drive towards segregation, particularly in the south, induced some African Americans to file suit in federal court under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. A compilation of these cases, called the Civil Rights Cases, was heard by the Supreme Court in 1883. The court found that, although the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from discriminating against individual citizens on the basis of race, it does not prohibit individual citizens from discriminating against one another.8 As a result, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was nullified, and the federal government was deemed powerless to prevent the spread of segregationism in the south.
Plessy v Ferguson
While the court's decision in Civil Rights Cases only applied to individual cases of discrimination, the court was also asked to address the issue of segregation as public policy. In 1892, an African American man named Homer Plessy attempted to sit in a section of a rail car designated for "whites only". Mr. Plessy was arrested, and he appealed his case to the Supreme Court. In Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that state sponsored efforts at segregation were lawful, so long as the services and accommodations rendered to African Americans were of comparable quality to those offered to white Americans.9 The “separate but equal” doctrine gained legal legitimacy from the court’s decision in Plessy, and the court's decision paved the way for the unfettered segregation of whites and blacks in the south.
The 20th Century
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was ruled unconstitutional in Civil Rights Cases, the federal government reloaded in 1964. In order to get around the limitations imposed by Civil Rights Cases, Congress claimed that authority to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was derived, not from the Fourteenth Amendment, but from the commerce clause of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. The Warren Court accepted Congress' interpretation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was soon followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Warren Court also started turning a heavier hand towards the states in a series of civil rights cases, most notably Brown v Topeka Board of Education. These actions, taken together, brought an end to the Jim Crow era and fundamentally changed the nature of race relations in the United States.
In November of 2008, a 114-year-old, African American woman named Gertrude Baines cast her vote in the 2008 presidential election. Ms. Baines, the daughter of two former slaves, was raised in Georgia and had experienced, first hand, the brutality of Jim Crow. She cast her vote for Senator Barack Obama, the first African American to win the presidential nomination of a major party.10 She was not alone.
Senator Obama beat Senator McCain by nearly ten million votes. He carried 43 percent of the white vote nationwide and carried more white voters under the age of 30 than his adversary.11 His victory was resounding, and news of it touched off international celebrations of America’s greatness.
President Obama’s victory in the 2008 election did not mark the end of the story that began nearly 400 years earlier, when the first Africans stepped foot in the British colony of Jamestown. An achievement gap still exists between white students and black students. African Americans are still disproportionately poor, disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately targeted for discrimination. However, President Obama's victory demonstrated that, in order to overcome the problems sewn in generations long past, we must continue to embrace one another as full partners in the American system of democracy, so future generations can learn from our example and avoid repeating the mistakes made by those who came before.
1 University of Texas. (2009). Slavery: 1619-1770. Retrieved on May 9, 2009 from http://www.ford.utexas.edu/museum/exhibits/slavery/1619-1770.html
2 Davis, R. 2009. Slavery in America: Historical Overview. Retrieved on May 9, 2009 from http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_overview.htm
3 Stewart, D. (2007). The Summer of 1787. New York: Simon and Schuster.
4 U.S. Constitution. Art 1 § 9
5 Prigg v Pennsylvania. 1842.
6 Dred Scott v Sanford. 1847.
7 U. S. Constitution. Am. 15 S 1
8 Civil Rights Cases. 1883.
9 Plessy v Ferguson. 1896.
10Abdollah, T. (2008, November 5). At 114, a Daughter of Former Slaves Votes for Obama. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on May 11, 2009 from: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/nov/05/local/me-baines5
11CNN. (2009). Exit Polls. Retrieved on May 11, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#USP00p1