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Famous Cases

Dred Scott vs Sanford (1856)

Dred Scott was a slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom, arguing that because he and his wife had lived in states where slavery was illegal, they had the right to their freedom. Scott and his wife often traveled with their owner, Dr. John Emerson, who was frequently transferred from slave territories to free territories by the U.S. Military. Dred Scott and his wife spent many years in Illinois and Wisconsin (free territories), though Scott only made his claim to freedom when he was back in slave territory.

The Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 against Dred Scott and ruled that because he owned no property, he was not entitled to sue in federal court. This case had major implications for northern/southern relations because it implied that a white, southern slaveholder could bring his slaves into territory where slavery was illegal without being punished. The ruling essentially declared that slaves had no rights and were little more than property.


Plessy vs Ferguson (1896)

In 1892, Homer Plessy, decided to test a newly passed law in Louisiana that required African-Americans and Whites to ride on separate railway cars. Plessy, who was only 1/8 African-American boarded the train and sat in the Whites-only railway car. He was immediately arrested, found in violation of the state’s segregation law and fined $300.00.

After unsuccessfully arguing that his 13th and 14th Amendment rights were violated in front of the state Supreme Court in Louisiana, Plessy took his argument straight to the Supreme Court. In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana did not violate any laws. Furthermore, the court stated that segregation on railway cars in Louisiana was a matter of public policy rather than a statement of the inferiority of African-Americans.

The Plessy case was a landmark case in American history because it legitimized the practice of segregation and the idea of “separate but equal” as a justification of segregation. The institution of Jim Crow Laws proliferated after the Plessy ruling and did the practice of separating the races in schools, restaurants, buses, bathrooms, and other places. Of course, the separate facilities were never really equal.


Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)

Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was a landmark case in American judicial history. The Brown case was actually a culmination of five similar cases filed in Washington D.C., Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, and Kansas. Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and that African-American students should be exposed to the same advantages in schools as White children. The Supreme Court agreed with Marshall and unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. In 1955, the Supreme Court demanded integration in public schools “with all deliberate speed,” though many regions complied with the law slowly, and others refused to comply until being forced to by the government.

The Brown Case carved the path for the Civil Rights movement, and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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