Calendar photo Caption: After the Civil war, the Supreme Court struck down federal laws and weakened constitutional provisions designed to ensure "equal justice under law" to formerly enslaved Black people, leaving them without federal protection from racial discrimination and violent terrorism for generations. (Robert Mooney)
After the Civil War, Congress passed laws and Constitutional amendments designed to protect Black people by defining some civil rights violations as federal crimes and authorizing people to sue in federal court when their civil rights were violated.
When Southern white leaders decried these laws as unjustified intrusions on state authority, the Supreme Court agreed. It issued an unprecedented number of decisions striking down federal laws and dismantling the legal architecture of Reconstruction.
Lawyer, enslaver, and Confederate leader John Archibald Campbell orchestrated the Court's anti-Reconstruction activism. When Louisiana's Reconstruction legislature consolidated New Orleans slaughterhouses into one location outside the city, he saw an opportunity "to bring about Reconstruction's ultimate demise." He sued on behalf of white butchers, arguing that the Louisiana law violated the Fourteenth Amendment's "privileges and immunities" clause.
In The Slaughterhouse Cases, the Court in 1872 held that federal courts could enforce only national citizenship rights, like free access to seaports and federal protection when in a foreign country. Fundamental rights - to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, and to protection by the government - could be enforced only in state courts, which were decidedly hostile to Black litigants.
At the very moment when Black citizens most needed constitutional protections against racial discrimination and rampant violence, the Court gutted the Fourteenth Amendment, rendering it what the dissent called "a vain and idle enactment."