Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

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The Great Depression is not remembered as a time of major advances in human rights, yet during the 1930s significant steps were taken in both civil rights and civil liberties: The U.S. Supreme Court established important protections for criminal defendants; Congress granted new powers to labor unions; and the civil liberties of unpopular groups were strengthened.

In the case of the "Scottsboro boys," the most infamous legal controversy of the decade, the Supreme Court demonstrated a newfound concern for the rights of accused criminals and a willingness to challenge judicial racism in the South. This case involved nine African-American males ranging in age from sixteen to twenty who were arrested in March 1931 near Scottsboro, Alabama, and charged with raping two white women. The young men were hastily tried and eight were sentenced to death. Although a lawyer was present at their trial, he was neither competent nor given time to prepare a defense. Activists who investigated the case found that the evidence against the young men was flimsy. The women who were their chief accusers were of dubious character, their testimony was inconsistent, and one later recanted her accusations. International Labor Defense retained Samuel Leibowitz to pursue the Scottsboro boys' appeals and mounted a worldwide campaign on their behalf.

Leibowitz petitioned the Supreme Court for relief and in Powell v. Alabama (1932) it ordered a new trial because the Scottsboro boys had been denied effective counsel, violating their right to a fair trial. The young men were tried a second time in 1934. Again they were convicted and sentenced to death and again their appeal reached the Supreme Court. In Norris v. Alabama (1935) the justices unanimously overturned their convictions on the grounds that African Americans had been excluded from the jury.

The Court further strengthened the rights of the accused in Brown v. Mississippi (1936). Here the justices rejected murder charges against three black men whose convictions were based solely on coerced confessions. In Johnson v. Zerbst (1938) the Court ruled that indigent federal defendants were entitled to legal counsel. Twenty-five years later this right was extended to all defendants in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).

When it came to voting rights the Supreme Court was less courageous. In Nixon v. Condon (1932) the justices invalidated the whites-only Texas Democratic primary election, ruling that states cannot discriminate against voters on the basis of race. But when the state legislature gave political parties complete authority over primaries, the Court approved. In Grovey v. Townsend (1935) it ruled that parties were voluntary associations and thus allowed to discriminate. This decision would be reversed nine years later in Smith v. Allwright (1944). The Court further demonstrated its reluctance to meddle in political affairs by upholding the constitutionality of poll taxes in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937).

During the 1930s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focused much of its energy on passage of a federal anti-lynching law. Senators Robert F. Wagner of New York and Edward Costigan of Colorado introduced such a bill in 1934, but maneuvering by southern opponents blocked it from being considered by the full Senate. The NAACP executive secretary, Walter White, sought President Roosevelt's support for the bill, but Roosevelt was unwilling to antagonize powerful southern legislators: "If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can't take that risk." In 1937 another anti-lynching bill sponsored by New York Representative Joseph Gavaghn passed in the House 277 to 120. A Gallup poll reported that 70 percent of Americans favored such legislation, but southern senators launched a filibuster and prevented a vote. Although Alabama's Tuskegee Institute recorded the lynching of twenty-four African Americans in 1933, this number steadily dwindled until only two such atrocities were logged in 1939. The NAACP was responsible for much of this decline.

In education, racial separation was the rule, but during the 1930s a small crack appeared in the wall of segregation. Donald Murray applied for admission to the University of Maryland Law School in 1934. When his application was refused, Thurgood Marshall brought suit arguing that Murray should be admitted since Maryland provided no opportunities for blacks to study law. Baltimore City Court Judge Eugene O'Dunne agreed and Murray entered law school in September 1935.

In 1938 Charles Houston argued a similar case. Lloyd Gaines had applied to the University of Missouri Law School. Missouri also provided no legal education for black students. In Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) the Supreme Court ordered the state to admit Gaines. Although the justices were not yet willing to repudiate "separate but equal," the Gaines decision was the first step on the road to Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

African Americans enjoyed few civil rights during this decade, but they built a foundation for future gains. In the words of Robert S. McElvaine, author of The Great Depression (1984), "The rebirth of that dream of true racial equality . . . was the real achievement of the New Deal years in race relations."

Without question, workers and organized labor enjoyed the greatest expansion of rights during the 1930s. Three major pieces of legislation were responsible for this progress: the Norris-La Guardia Act (1932), the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), and the National Labor Relations Act (1935). Each of these bills, using different language, guaranteed workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers. Observers wondered whether the Supreme Court would follow its longstanding pro-business bias and strike down these laws. In the case of Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), the Court invalidated most provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act, including section 7(a), which covered union organizing. However, in five separate 1937 decisions the Court upheld key provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, finding that the ability of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining was "a fundamental right."

Subsequent decisions further expanded workers' rights. In Senn v. Tile Layers Union (1937) the Court recognized that picketing was a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. This decision was broadened in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940). African Americans picketing stores as part of a "don't buy where you can't work" campaign received similar protection in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery (1938). In Hague v. Congress of Industrial Organizations (1939) the Court struck down a Jersey City anti-union ordinance requiring permits to hold public meetings or distribute literature in public places. Labor's rights were also strengthened by the Senate in 1936 when it established a committee under the chairmanship of Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., "to make an investigation of violations of the rights of free speech and assembly and undue interference with the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively."

In several important cases the Supreme Court expanded the rights of free speech and assembly. In Stromberg v. California (1931) the Court overturned the conviction of a counselor at a Communist youth camp for displaying a red flag. A few weeks later, in Near v. Minnesota, it ruled that the First Amendment free press guarantee protected even the publication of a malicious anti-Semitic scandal sheet. In 1933 New York federal court Judge John Munro Woolsey struck a blow against censorship by ruling that James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922) was not obscene. In DeJonge v. Oregon (1937) the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a speaker at a Communist sponsored rally. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said that the state could not make "mere participation in a peaceable assembly and a lawful public discussion . . . basis for a criminal charge." The Court relied on a somewhat different logic when it rejected the conviction of Communist Party organizer Angelo Herndon, who was given a twenty-year sentence for violating a Georgia anti-insurrection statute. In Herndon v. Georgia (1937) the majority opinion held that speech could not be punished "by reason of its supposed dangerous tendency even in the remote future."

The Supreme Court also considered religious freedom cases with mixed results. In Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938) the Court ruled unconstitutional a local ordinance used to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from distributing religious tracts on city streets. The Court, however, was not willing to extend this protection to other areas. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) it upheld the expulsion of two Pennsylvania students who refused to join in a compulsory salute to the flag in keeping with their religious beliefs. In the face of surprisingly strong public criticism, the justices admitted they had erred and three years later the Court reversed itself.

Meanwhile, developments in Congress indicated growing intolerance for radical political beliefs. In 1938 the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities, under the leadership of Representative Martin Dies, began a decades-long hunt for subversive influences. Its sensational public hearings became a platform for wild accusations of Communist infiltration in labor unions and New Deal agencies with a chilling effect on free speech.

During the Depression there were important gains, especially for organized labor. But the picture was not uniformly sanguine: the Jim Crow system remained in place in the South; African Americans would have to wait a quarter of a century before gaining full civil rights; and an anti-Communist crusade that would erode civil liberties began. With respect to civil rights, the 1930s were most significant for establishing the basis for advances that would be fully realized in later decades.



Braeman, John. Before the Civil Rights Revolution: The Old Court and Individual Rights. 1988.

Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. 1969.

Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Brown. 1999.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU, 2nd edition. 1999.

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade against Lynching, 1909–1950. 1980.

Paul T. Murray

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