Assess the view that the Supreme Court was the most important branch of federal government in assisting African Americans to achieve their civil rights in the period 1865-1992.

Authors Avatar

Assess the view that the Supreme Court was the most important branch of federal government in assisting African Americans to achieve their civil rights in the period 1865-1992.

The three main branches of America federal government often show great divergence of opinion - something that has a huge impact on the way laws and attitudes in the US change over time - and this is blindingly obvious in terms of the Civil Rights movement and the fight for African American civil rights - for example, even at times when Congress was highly conservative, the Supreme Court was able to make rulings, based on previous legislation, that dramatically improved the rights of African Americans, and even at times when the Supreme Court and Congress were both heavily opposed to further movement on the issue, the President was able to step in and issue Executive Orders.

One of the first steps, of course, on the journey toward equal rights for African Americans was the 13th Amendment. Ultimately, unless the slaves had been freed, there could never have been equality for them with the rest of society. Followed by the 14th and 15th Amendments, which further extended the de jure rights of African Americans - indeed, the Amendments gave African Americans equal rights, in a de jure capacity. All three of these amendments were passed by Congress, and are indicative of the positive attitude towards the movement held by Congress in the early part of the period. The sheer importance of these early amendments, does, in many ways suggest that the contribution of Congress did, in fact, make it the most important branch of federal government in assisting African Americans to achieve their civil rights - indeed, much of the positive action to come from other areas of government was based upon these first few moves - especially the work of the Supreme Court.

However, despite the initially promising start made by Congress, the erosion of the freedoms granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments began as early as the 1870s, when cases like the Slaughterhouse case effectively undid the work of Congress, thanks to rulings by the Supreme Court. This case ruled that states were permitted to make laws affecting the rights of the citizens - a ruling that would allow southern states to make laws segregating black and white citizens. In fact, it almost went so far as to completely disregard the 14th Amendment, claiming it protected an person's individual rights, but not their civil rights - with one ruling, the Supreme Court effectively removed de jure equality for African Americans, and moved de facto equality further out of their reach.  This case was also one of the first examples of federal government choosing to recognise "States' Rights" - a view that would allow many of the southern states to continue to discriminate against their African American citizens for many decades to come. The Slaughterhouse case clearly indicates the position of the Supreme Court during this part of the period - they were prepared to interpret the law to their own ends, at this point, this involved allowing the southern states to do as they pleased, in order to pacify them following the Civil War, and hence had a hugely negative impact on the achievement of Civil Rights for African Americans.

Continuing the trend of positive moves being made by Congress, and negative moves being made by the Supreme Court, Congress passed a Civil Rights act in 1875, in reaction to increasingly more formalised segregation in many southern states, making it clear that public areas should not be segregated, and that equal rights for all still applied in those areas. This act was, however, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, beginning with their ruling in the case of US v. Cruikshank in 1876, and completely revoking the act as unconstitutional in 1876. This further gives evidence that in the 19th Century, the Supreme Court was most certainly not the most important branch of federal government in terms of assisting African Americans to gain their civil rights, and Congress was playing a far more important role, despite the fact that their moves were being blocked by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court continued to have a negative effect upon the civil rights movement as the 19th century drew to a close. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark decision in the fight for Civil Rights, cementing as it did the principle of "separate but equal" - confirming the legality of segregation, and setting a legal precedent  for what it meant to hold all men as created equal. This decision was a huge disappointment to the civil rights movement, who had hoped to prove that segregation was unconstitutional. They did receive some support, from Justice John Harlan, which indicates the gradually changing mood of the Supreme Court, but again, the attitude of the court as a whole was not favourable, and it was a hindrance, rather than a help to the movement. Whilst the ruling of the Supreme Court here was almost understandable, given the attitudes of the time, and despite the fact that the facilities for African Americans were often considerably lower standard than those for white Americans, the later ruling in the case of Cumming v. Board of Education seems to go completely against the constitution supposedly upheld by the Supreme Court, given the huge differences in funding between schools for black and white children. The Supreme Court could hardly be considered to merely be interpreting the law to their own desires here, but rather completely disregarding the Constitution completely, as in terms of schools, the idea of "separate but equal" could so obviously not be applied. Once more, it becomes clear that the Supreme Court were most certainly not a force for good in aiding African Americans to achieve their civil rights during this part of the period.

Join now!

The Presidents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did, in contrast to the Supreme Court, have a relatively positive outlook toward the civil rights movement. In his inaugural address, Grover Cleveland stressed the need for equal rights for all, regardless of race; Theodore Roosevelt held talks with the highly influential black leader Booker T. Washington, as did William Taft. However, despite the apparently good intentions of these Presidents, they took very little action on the issue, preferring instead to appease the south by allowing state governments to continue to pass Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. Not ...

This is a preview of the whole essay

Here's what a star student thought of this essay

The essay is sometimes hard to read because the student does not use enough punctuation - the entire introduction, for example, is actually only one sentence. This makes it harder for the examiner to understand because it is not broken up into ordinary sized chunks of information. Also, the essay is not always written in an appropriate style for A Levels - phrases like "this is blindingly obvious" sound exaggerated, and it would be more appropriate to say something like "this was never more obvious". The essay makes good use of vocabulary such as "however", which is good because words like that reiterate the student's knowledge of other interpretations and proves that they can consider other opinions on historical events.

The student uses a good range of evidence, including statistics such as "by 1935, 30% of black families were receiving relief". This is good because it shows that the student understands that it was a significant number of people receiving relief, not a tiny, irrelevant percentage. The student is also very good at talking about why things happened and what the effects were, rather than simply telling the story of what happened, which is bad as it takes little thought to remember and write down details. The student instead gives details then says things like "many of these programs did have the knock-on effect of bringing aid to African Americans" - this shows they have thought deeply about what happened to people when the programs were introduced, rather than spending a paragraph talking about the irrelevant details of the programs such as which senator introduced them or how long they took to pass. The conclusion is not explicitly labelled as the conclusion - the student doesn't say "In conclusion..." - which would have been good because it is unclear whether or not this is actually the conclusion. It is vital to have a conclusion - and to leave the examiner in no doubt that it is there - because it shows you can decide which interpretation you have considered is the most likely to be correct. This student does this by saying "the only branch who can claim to be the most important in terms of civil rights is the Supreme Court", but they could improve by labelling the last paragraph as the conclusion.

The student answers the question quite well by providing alternative interpretations on the roles of the branches of the federal government, which is good as it shows they have thought about other possible causes of African American civil rights and aren't just focusing on one event. However, it is hard to see where consideration of one interpretation stops and another begins: it would be better to bring all the arguments for the Supreme Court into one section, all the arguments for Congress into the next section, and all the arguments for the presidency into the next section. This would show that the student had a strong understanding of how the branches of the federal government had different roles to play in the achievement of civil rights. If you did this, you should still talk about other branches of the federal government even if it wasn't in the right section, because that would show the ability to compare an action of one branch to an action of another branch.