Date of Award

12-2007

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

History

Major Professor

W. Bruce Wheeler

Committee Members

Ernest Freeberg, Stephen V. Ash, Fran Ansley

Abstract

This study discusses the role of Supreme Court decisions in shaping the evolution of Jim Crow and African American newspapers’ reactions to these decisions. The study focuses on the period between the end of Reconstruction and the United States’ entrance into World War I. It looks at several Supreme Court decisions to demonstrate how the Court failed to act as a check on state legislatures’ reactionary undertakings and how these legislatures interpreted the Court’s judgments. Several of the Supreme Court’s decisions served to alert white legislators to the federal government’s limited actions to protect the rights of African American citizens. The cases included represent most areas of discrimination faced by African Americans during this period including participation in the court system, Fourteenth Amendment protections, the Fifteenth Amendment, public versus private segregation, transportation segregation, education segregation, and housing segregation. White legislators viewed the Supreme Court as an indicator of the state segregation that the federal government would allow.

African American newspapers failed to offer a significant response to many key decisions. As the Court limited the protections of Reconstruction legislation, black newspapers offered little guidance to the black community about how to salvage their equal rights. The newspapers had the opportunity to reach large portions of the African American community and to lead efforts to protest the Court’s potentially detrimental decisions, but the press failed to bring attention to the cases white legislators viewed as signals that the federal government would not interfere with state and local segregation. Through the study of approximately twenty black newspapers, it becomes clear that the newspapers’ editors often misread the importance of the Supreme Court’s holdings. Cases that historians now recognize as key turning points in the status of African Americans went virtually ignored by the press and cases that receive little more than a footnote garnered extended attention from newspapers for being either a significant blow to the black community or for being cause for hope. It is apparent that the Supreme Court played a significant role in enabling Jim Crow to expand and the African American press did little to counter its effects.

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