U.S. vs. Harris Thesis

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U.S. Vs. Harris

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Case Basics:

Petitioner: United States

Respondent: Harris

Decided By: Waite Court (1882-1887)

106 U.S. 629 (1883)

Decided: Monday, January 22, 1883

Facts of the Case (Oyez Project):

Harris led an armed lynch mob into a Tennessee jail and captured four black prisoners. Though the deputy sheriff attempted to protect the prisoners, he was unsuccessful. One of the prisoners died. The United States government brought criminal charges against Sheriff Harris and others under Section 2 of the Force Act of 1871. This act made it a crime for two or more persons to conspire for the purpose of depriving anyone of the equal protection of the laws.

Question:

Could the United States try Harris and others under the act?

Conclusion:

The Force Act was unconstitutional. The Fourteenth Amendment only authorized Congress to take remedial steps against state action that violated the amendment. The Amendment applied only to acts of the states, not to acts of individuals (Oyez Project).

Definition: Force Acts

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Series of four acts passed by the U.S. Congress (1870 -- 75) to protect the rights guaranteed to blacks by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The acts authorized federal authorities to penalize any interference with the registration, voting, office holding, or jury service of blacks (Brittanica).

The Facts

TOPIC: Thesis on U.S. vs. Harris Assignment

The four black men -- Robert Smith, William Overton, George Wells, and P.M. Wells -- were illegally taken out of the Crockett County, Tennessee jail by 19 people led by the Sheriff, R.G. Harris. Though the sheriff should have been trying to stop the mob, not leading it, he wasn't. All four black men were severely beaten and one of them died. The Sheriff's deputy tried to stop the mob from removing the black men from jail, but failed (Cannaday).

Background

On 1 January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation of emancipation for African-Americans held in slavery in Confederate states. Between 1865 and 1870, the states ratified to the U.S. Constitution the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal protection of the laws, and the Fifteenth Amendment which guaranteed the right to vote. In the late 1860s, a secret white organization called the Ku Klux Klan was founded with the purpose of preventing African-Americans from gaining equal access to political power. The Ku Klux Klan beat and murdered African-Americans and their white sympathizers to keep them from exercising their rights (jrank).

To counter the activities of the organization, the Reconstruction Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. The act extended the protection of federal courts to those who effectively were prevented from exercising their civil rights by the threat of mob violence. The act authorized both criminal and civil actions against those who "conspire or go in disguise upon the highway or on the premises of another for the purpose of depriving" any person of the equal protection of the laws or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws. Although the immediate purpose of the act was to combat animosity against African-Americans and their supporters, the language of the act, like that of many Reconstruction statutes, was applicable to incidents beyond the scope of events during the Reconstruction (jrank).

A series of Supreme Court decisions throughout the last three decades of the 19th century negated civil rights legislative gains and circumscribed protections for freedmen under the Reconstruction Amendments. The Supreme Court rejected the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases -- a set of three lawsuits initiated by Louisiana butchers challenging a state law that centralized the state's slaughterhouses into one private company. The butchers claimed protection under the 14th Amendment against state incursion on "privileges or immunities." The decision limited the ability of the federal government to protect Black Americans by confining its power to influence the states on behalf of individual rights. The United States v. Cruikshank and United States v. Reese decisions weakened the 15th Amendment's protection of voting rights in March 1876. Cruikshank initiated an erosion of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, as the court ruled the act did not guarantee First Amendment Rights. The high court in the Reese case opened a Pandora's box with its finding that the 15th Amendment did not confer upon any individual the right to vote, but merely forbade states to give any citizen preferential treatment. In this light, the right to vote derived from states, rather than the federal government -- leaving state governments to determine how voters were qualified and under what circumstances voting would be allowed. In United States v. Harris (1883), the court determined that federal laws did not apply to private persons, which proved a blow to the Ku Klux Klan Acts. That finding essentially unleashed white supremacists to attack any African-American seeking to exercise his political rights (Office of History and Preservation).

In 1876, a grand jury returned an indictment in a federal circuit court in Tennessee charging several persons with criminal violations of the Civil Rights Act following the beating of three African-American men and the killing of a fourth, all of whom were, at the time of the incident, under arrest and in the custody of a deputy sheriff. The defendants were charged with conspiring to deprive the victims of the equal protection of the laws and of the right to be protected from violence while under arrest and in custody of the sheriff (jrank).

The first count charged as follows (justia.com):

"That R.G. Harris [and nineteen others, naming them], yeomen, of the County of Crockett, in the State of Tennessee, and all late of the county and district aforesaid, on, to-wit, the fourteenth day of August, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy-six, in the County of Crockett, in said state and district, and within the jurisdiction of this Court, unlawfully, with force and arms, did conspire together with certain other persons whose names are to the grand jurors aforesaid unknown, then and there, for the purpose of depriving Robert R.

Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, then and there being citizens of the United States and of said state, of the equal protection of the laws, in this, to-wit, that therefore, to-wit, on the day and year aforesaid, in said county, the said Robert R. Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, having been charged with the commission of certain criminal offenses, the nature of which said criminal offenses being to the grand jurors aforesaid unknown, and having upon such charges then and there been duly arrested by the lawful and constituted authorities of said state, to-wit, by one William A. Tucker, the said William A. Tucker then and there being a deputy sheriff of said county, and then and there acting as such, and having been so arrested as aforesaid, and being then and there so under arrest and in the custody of said deputy sheriff as aforesaid, they, the said Robert R. Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, were there and then by the laws of said state entitled to the due and equal protection of the laws thereof, and were then and there entitled under the said laws to have their persons protected from violence when so then and there under arrest as aforesaid. And the grand jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do further present that the said R.G. Harris, (and 19 others, naming them) with certain other persons whose names are to the said grand jurors unknown, did then and there, with force and arms, unlawfully conspire together as aforesaid then and there for the purpose of depriving them, the said Robert R. Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, of their rights to the due and equal protection of the laws of said state, and of their rights to be protected in their persons from violence while so then and there under arrest as aforesaid, and while so then and there in the custody of the said deputy sheriff, and did then and there deprive them, the said Robert R.

Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, of such rights and protection, and of the due and equal protection of the laws of the said state, by then and there, while so under arrest as aforesaid, and while so then and there in the custody of the said deputy sheriff as aforesaid, beating, bruising, wounding, and otherwise ill treating them, the said Robert R. Smith, William J. Overton, George W. Wells, Jr., and P.M. Wells, contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the United States" (justia.com).

The second count charged that the defendants, with force and arms, unlawfully did conspire together for the purpose of preventing and hindering the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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