Racial Profiling in the Legal System Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3110 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 7  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

Civil Rights Movement

Whole books have been written on the subject of the civil rights struggle of African-Americans in the United States, a struggle that undoubtedly began when the first African slaves were brought to North America against their will. However, in recent history, the period of time in the 1950's and 1960's were pivotal because of the significant gains made. This period of change was driven by changes in government policy as reflected by both civil rights laws passed and amendments made to the American Constitution.


Even though people in both the North and the South of the United States owned slaves at the time America won its independence from England, our nation's earliest document suggested that we would eventually reject slavery. The Declaration of Independence stated that "All men are created equal' and are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." (Canady, 1998) No mention was made drawing distinctions based on skin color, and the document emphasized the dignity of the individual, a factor that would later unite Blacks in their struggle for equality. Less than a century later, President Abraham Lincoln embraced the idea that "all should have an equal chance" (Canady, 1998). While Thomas Jefferson did not mean Blacks in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln did mean people of color in his speeches. The time had come to end slavery.

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In fact, one of the first major actions of the newly reunified country in 1865 was to formally abolish slavery via the passage of Amendment XIII to the Constitution, which states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." (U.S. Constitution) Significantly, this amendment included the statement that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation (U.S. Constitution), laying the foundation for later civil rights law.

Term Paper on Racial Profiling in the Legal System Assignment

The rights of the former slaves were bolstered by Amendment XiV ratified in 1968, which stated that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." If this amendment had been followed rigorously, it would have prevented the rise of the "Jim Crow" laws that so severely restricted where African-Americans might go and what they might do. However, the Southern states were not willing to acquiesce to a new set of standards regarding former slaves, and passed Draconian laws that solidly established Blacks as second class citizens.

In spite of Jim Crow laws, in 1870 Amendment XV of the Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote to all races: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude... (U.S. Constitution). The country made no more amendments directly related to the civil rights of people of color until 1964, when Amendment XXIV was passed. This amendment banned poll taxes, which guaranteed that economic status would not decide who could and could not vote in federal elections (U.S. Constitution).


In spite of multiple amendments to the Constitution as well as culturally accepted statements regarding the rights of all people to dignity and equality, by the mid-1950's African-Americans were still openly and systematically oppressed in much of the United States. These attitudes toward people of culture had become embedded in social culture and embraced by people who believed themselves to be law-abiding Americans and patriots. However, little by little, social consciousness began to shift. The Supreme Court played an important role in forcing acceptance of change.

One very important decision by the Supreme Court was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which endorsed the idea that separation of the races did not automatically mean inequality between the races (Canady, 1998). Justice John Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion that said in part, "Our Constitution is color blind.... The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the Supreme law of the land are involved." (Canady, 1998) Such statements from such influential Americans helped infuse the growing civil rights movement with the belief that the rightness of their cause would eventually be recognized. The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was overturned in 1954 by the Supreme Court's ruling in 1954. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that separate was inherently unequal, and declared the practice of segregated schools unconstitutional. This was a crucial change, because the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling had been used to keep Black students out of accredited high schools and had prevented them from attending many state universities.

Encouraged by this court ruling, the civil rights movement gained new energy in the mid- 1950's. Black leaders began to organize in order to fight not only school segregation but racist laws and policies. A grassroots movement formed to help Blacks get registered to vote (Canady, 1998). Political support for equal rights first came from President Ike Eisenhower, who in 1957 signed the first civil rights law to be passed in 82 years (Graham, 1997). This law supported the rights of Blacks to vote in all states in the country and established a "Commission on Civil Rights" to study civil rights issues (Graham, 1997).

However, in spite of the new law and the weight of the United States constitution, little real changes occurred regarding voting rights. The Civil Rights Commission gathered information and made recommendations for government policy, but had no authority, and individuals had to press for their voting rights through the courts, a slow and cumbersome process. The 1957 civil rights law had little impact on the real status of Blacks (Graham, 1997). For the most part, Jim Crow discrimination laws stayed in place and continued to be enforced.

The difficulty of these times can be illuminated by looking at the roles two individuals played: Rosa Parks and George Wallace. Rosa Parks represented the civil rights movement by her actions one day on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Following the Jim Crow laws, she sat in the first row Black section on the bus. As the bus filled up, the entire Black section filled, as well as the White section. Then a White man got on and there were no more seats in the white section. The bus driver ordered Parks to give her seat up to him, meaning that she would have to stand. She refused and was arrested. This incident resulted in an extended bus boycott that eventually resulted in the end of Jim Crow laws in that city (Morris, 1999).

Unfortunately some Whites were unwilling to grant anything resembling equality to Blacks. On June 11, 1963, George Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama to bar the door to what would have been the University's first black student. President John F. Kennedy had to send in federal troops to end the standoff. This pivotal event helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated segregation and made a new commitment "to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law." (Canady, 1998) This law clearly stated that no American would be discriminated against based on sex, race or disability. This law was followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which clearly extended voting rights to all Americans.


Presidents played an important role in these events both because of their political influence and because they had the power to exert moral leadership. President Eisenhower, as noted, supported the end of formalized discrimination. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson also deserve special mention for actions they did or did not take while in office, because their periods of service coincided with this period of civil rights gains. Although Kennedy did use federal troops to end the standoff at the University of Alabama, he seemed guided more by political expediency than out of a sense that wrongs needed to be righted. He needed southern votes in order to be elected, and during his first campaign, relatively few Blacks were registered to vote (Stevens, 2002). During his second term he was more able to balance political goals with the need for chance, since he could not run for a third term. However, many feel that he avoided taking any public stance on civil rights and that his actions were guided for the most part by political opinion (Stevens, 2002).

By the time President Johnson became President, it was clear that civil rights must be addressed at the federal level, and Johnson supported civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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