The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Supreme Court has interpreted this prohibition to mean that state action that imposes restriction on the free exercise of religion is permitted only when there is a “compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate…” and even then, only “to prevent grave and immediate danger…”
A group of well-known civil rights leaders ran a full-page advertisement, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. The ad described an “unprecedented wave of terror” in police attacks and other government sponsored oppression against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery and other southern cities. The ad closed with a plea for readers to provide both moral support and financial donations to sustain the civil rights movement because America’s “good name hangs in the balance before a watchful world, the America whose heritage of Liberty these Southern Upholders of the Constitution are defending, is our America as well as theirs.”
Benjamin Gitlow and Clarence Brandenburg would seem to have had little in common, but each was responsible for bringing a case that resulted in an important revolution in interpreting the meaning of free speech.
The 1950s and 1960s saw significant gains for civil rights of African Americans. In the 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public schools desegregated and the non-violent civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. kept the continuing disadvantages faced by African Americans in the public eye. In the 1960s, federal laws protecting civil rights, voting rights, and housing rights began to chip away at the injustices resulting from racial prejudice and discrimination. In the 1970s the movement continued, focusing on additional perplexing questions related to the constitutional principle of equality in employment and college admissions.
In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court had ruled 8-1 that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing racial discrimination in most public places, was unconstitutional. The owners of businesses such as railroads, theatres, and hotels could impose segregation in their facilities, or they could refuse to serve African Americans altogether. The Court adopted a narrow reading of the Civil War amendments, ruling relative to the Thirteenth Amendment that such segregation was not a “badge or incident of slavery,” and that the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment applied against state action, not against private behavior. African Americans endured legal, economic, and social discrimination, as well as brutal and systemic racial violence with little hope of relief for the next seven decades.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, outlawed slavery throughout the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, defined citizenship and prohibited the states from violating equal protection and due process of law for all persons. During Reconstruction following the Civil War, states of the former Confederate States of America were required to ratify these amendments before readmission to the Union, and as long as Union troops occupied the defeated South, the rights of African Americans were somewhat protected. Once Reconstruction formally drew to a close in 1876, however, freedmen and their descendants lost these constitutional legal protections and were unable to put into effect their rights to life, liberty, and property.
Article 1 Section 9, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution enshrines the “Great Writ,” a protection against arbitrary imprisonment that dates back at least to the Magna Carta of 1215: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The writ provides that, when government holds a suspect in custody, he has the right to be taken before a judge who determines whether there is good cause for the arrest, and must be released if there is no legitimate reason for government to hold him.
During what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century, American commerce grew exponentially and the American economy became the largest in the world. Wealthy industrialists organized their businesses to maximize efficiency and profits, contributing to an increase in buying power for all segments of American society and drawing millions of immigrants from around the world to the United States for opportunity. Workers, toiling long hours in dangerous conditions, sought to organize themselves, too, forming labor unions to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The early attempts at labor solidarity found only very limited success as management blocked their efforts through strike-breaking and intimidation. Conflicting interests between labor and management led to confrontations and violence in several major industries in the intermittent recessions that occurred in the latter decades of the 1800s.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the industrial revolution transformed the American landscape, culture, economy, and relationships between workers and management. The transformation brought significant gains in prosperity for both workers and management, but it also meant laborers worked long hours in dangerous conditions in factories and mines. Workdays of ten to twelve hours were common, with reduction of wages during economic slumps. There was no job security, and lack of safety features led to frequent grisly accidents caused by hazardous working conditions. Workers organized labor unions to bargain collectively for improvements in pay and other working conditions. Management almost always resisted the labor union demands, and each side worked to influence laws in its favor. The United Mine Workers Union was founded in 1890, followed by several other unions organized throughout the 1890s. Also throughout the 1890s, strikes, uprisings, and sometimes violent confrontations between labor and management broke out as workers attempted solidarity in pursuit of better wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Management responded to these initiatives by firing labor union leaders, hiring strike-breakers, intimidating workers, and using political influence to block any lasting legal reforms.
George Lafayette Carter was a reclusive Virginia industrialist who became a millionaire through business developments based on mining in what became known as the Mountain Empire, encompassing parts of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. By the time of his death in 1936, he had built his fortune through extensive coal field purchases, founding numerous businesses including Carter Coal and Iron Company. George L. Carter and his wife, Mayetta Wilkinson Carter, had only one child, James Walter Carter. James managed his father’s businesses beginning in 1933.
In the late 1920s, farmers across the country generally did not participate in the prosperity of the decade. They were often unable to sell their crops to distributors for sufficient prices to cover their costs of production. Especially in New York, where the milk industry was the cornerstone of agricultural economy, tension between dairy farmers and distributors resulted in angry confrontations. The Great Depression further exacerbated economic chaos and hardship throughout the American economy, making it even more difficult for farmers to adjust to the economic collapse. One farmer wrote to a local newspaper in 1932, “Every can of milk we sell leaves us further in debt than we were before we produced it. This robbery must stop soon or reform will be too late to help us.” By March and April of 1933, farmers and dairymen in various areas joined together in “Milk Wars” and “Farm Strikes” to try to prevent farm products from getting to towns and cities, in hopes that the resulting scarcity would lead to higher prices. They set up blockades to stop any trucks carrying dairy and farm products, seized the cargo and destroyed it.
After the Civil War, United States commerce experienced rapid growth, both among the states and in international markets. Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 regulating interstate trade. Many state legislatures wrote constitutional provisions and statutes intended to protect their states’ businesses from what they perceived as unfair competition from other states.
From our nation’s earliest days, the national government has been involved in education, due to its significance in preparation for constructive citizenship in a republican form of government. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside public lands specifically for the establishment of schools. Through additional grants of land and money, formation of administrative agencies, the G.I. Bill, and court-ordered desegregation, federal policy has influenced education throughout our history, though traditionally the details of implementation were worked out at state and local levels.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are created equal.” And yet, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies at the time. Beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, northern states moved toward the revolutionary ideal by enacting gradual abolition statutes. All children born in Pennsylvania after that time were free persons, though any child born to slaves was required to work for his/her mother’s master until age 28.
America’s Founding generation well understood the principle that, in order to maintain individual liberty and freedom of conscience, civil government must be limited in its purpose and its power. They also knew the history of widespread and bloody religious conflict behind that principle. At the same time, many Americans believed that government should support religion because religion promoted virtuous lives and nurtured the social order needed for self-government. Balancing these concerns was a matter of great significance. Read more