By Millington Bergeson-Lockwood
2018 was a tough year for civil rights advocates at the US Supreme Court. Often in close decisions, the court repeatedly narrowed the scope of civil rights protections for consumers, workers, voters, and immigrants. As if this were not enough, the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy has turned the court even more conservative for another generation. Civil rights activists cannot count on the Supreme Court as an ally in the fight for further equality and rights protections. But this is not the first time the Supreme Court has abandoned civil rights, and when it happened in the late nineteenth century, Americans found a way to defend what the courts would not.
In the wake of Reconstruction, the situation for advocates of American equality looked especially bleak when the Supreme Court struck down federal prohibitions on racial discrimination in public accommodations in the notorious Civil Rights Cases in 1883. After nearly a decade of optimism and feeling that the federal government was on their side, it became increasingly apparent to civil rights activists that the federal government could not be trusted to protect African American rights. Even worse, the Supreme Court could actually undermine hard-fought victories. In response to the court’s perceived bias on behalf of racist white business owners, African Americans and their allies turned away from the court and pursued the protection of their rights locally, through municipal and state government regulation and legislation.