Learn about Life in the 1920s

Supreme Court finds Racial Segregation Laws unconstitutional in 1927

NO LAWS MAY PART WHITE AND BLACK - ALL segregation laws, keeping white people out of negro residence sections and negroes out of white sections, are unconstitutional, says the Supreme Court for the second time. Such laws violate the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal civil rights to persons of all races. Very well, comes the answer from the press of the South, we will drop segregation laws, but keep on segregating the races.

OF COURSE, nobody can compel white people and colored people to be neighbors—and now the Supreme Court comes along to say that no State or city can legally keep them apart. That is, the segregation ordinances and laws that have been passed in recent years, particularly in the South, are invalidated by the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal rights to all races. Taking this decision together with the one the week before which voided the Texas law barring negroes from Democratic primaries, the New York Evening World sees the Southern people "coming in for considerable lashing in the Supreme Court of the United States." And in Louisiana, the State whose segregation laws have just been hit so hard, one daily paper declares that the decision "will meet with universal disapproval by the white people, not only of New Orleans and Louisiana, but the entire South." However, the Louisiana dailies in general accept the decision, insisting that segregation is necessary and will continue as a private policy even if it can not be enforced by law.

A spokesman for the colored race acclaims the outcome of the case as a victory in the "fight against legalized ghettoes."

It is remarkable to note that the case involving so acute an issue in American life should be settled by the Supreme Court without a word of comment. All the Court had to do was to refer to what it said on a previous occasion. The recent case, which has been pushed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, rose in New Orleans, where a negro planned to rent to negro tenants a house in the white section of the city. A white resident secured an injunction appealing to New Orleans ordinances and Louisiana laws. As the Baltimore Sun's Washington correspondent explains:

"The ordinances were enacted under a State law passed in 1912 authorizing municipalities to withhold permits for white or negro houses under certain circumstances, and a State law of 1924 prohibiting a white person from establishing a residence in a negro community and a negro from establishing a residence in a white community. The ordinance provides that white persons can not move into a negro neighborhood without the consent of two-thirds of the negroes resident thereof, and vice versa."

The injunction was therefore upheld by the State Supreme Court. But, as we read in a Washington dispatch to the New York World, "all segregation laws look alike to the Supreme Court." We are reminded that "in 1917 in the Buchanan-Warley case the Court killed the Louisville law." And on March 14 Chief Justice Taft simply announced that the judgment of the Louisiana court was reversed on the authority of the 1917 case, which involved a Louisville segregation ordinance. So to give their readers an idea of the Supreme Court's actual views, the Baltimore Sun quotes from the 1917 decision:

"A city ordinance forbidding colored persons from occupying houses as residences or places of abode or public assembly on blocks where the majority of the houses are occupied by white persons for those purposes, and in like manner prohibiting white persons when the conditions as to occupancy are reversed and which bases the interdiction upon color and nothing more, passes the legitimate bound of police power and invades the civil right to acquire, enjoy and use property, which is guaranteed in equal measure to all citizens, white or colored, by the Fourteenth Amendment."

When the news reached Louisiana it seemed to be just what the New Orleans Item had anticipated. That newspaper fears no injurious effect of the decision, and wires us this comment:

"This city grew old with the two races both inhabiting it in large numbers. It passed no such legislation until 1924. We have heard no substantial objection to the ordinance since then of a material sort, except several complaints falling under one head. It has occasionally been complained that a white dweller or investor, here and there, invoked the law unfairly, in a manner not contemplated in its passage, to the unjust injury of a few colored persons. The late Mayor Behrman, for instance, called a few such cases to our attention and used his influence against such tendencies. Some of the critics apprehend that growing contact between the races in Northern communities, where it has already resulted in a good deal of sporadic rioting, serious as well as conspicuous, will produce much more turmoil than any relations between the races in the South, where they have dwelt together for generations. Time alone can enlighten this phase of the subject."

Quite hopeful is The Times-Picayune that segregation ordinances like the New Orleans measure will eventually win judicial sanction, "just as tho long-embattled zoning system has been carried to victory after an up-hill fight against ancient prejudices and precedence. But that time, it appears, has not yet come."

Somewhat sharper comment comes from the smaller cities of Louisiana. It is the Alexandria Town Talk which, as already quoted, predicts universal Southern disapproval of the Supreme Court's opinion. It telegraphs that:

- "The White people of New Orleans or any other section of the South will never acquiesce submissively in a situation which would be created by the decision of the high court, and while they likely will not commit any act by which they could be placed in contempt, they will probably pursue some method whereby the problem can be solved in a peaceful manner."

"The ordinance is fair to both races, and was passed in the interest of property values and race harmony," wires The State Times, in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital; "a white neighborhood would be seriously damaged by an influx of negro residents, and no first-class negro settlement should care to have the class of whites that would want to move into a negro settlement. " The Baton Rouge paper expects no trouble, since both races accept the principle of race segregation as an unwritten rule. The Supreme Court's decision will not upset this state of affairs, "still, it is regretted that the highest tribunal of the nation has blocked the writing into the law of a rule essential to peace and good-will between the two races in the South." "There can be no social intermingling of the races, and there can not with safety be too close contact in the matter of residence," agrees the Shreveport Journal. One Louisiana paper, the Monroe News-Star, has a feeling that "there is still a chance that carefully framed segregation laws will be given judicial sanction." The segregation policy, it predicts, will continue in the large Southern cities, "where it will in all probability be accompanied by a greater effort to remove the source of trouble by assisting the colored population in the work of making negro residential sections better places in which to live, thus eliminating the major reason for unrest." A Northern daily, the New York World, believes the decision "probably puts an end to the revival of a movement for the legal segregation of the races in Southern communities."

The issue involved "is a fight against legalized ghettoes," says Mr. James Weldon Johnson, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has been carrying the case through the courts. The decision, he says "shows that the South sooner or later must come to realize that there is such a thing as the Constitution and its amendments."

Source: Literary Digest - March 26, 1927