Chief Justice Earl Warren
(Hessler Studio, Washington, D.C..
Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)
63 years ago, on May 17 , 1954, the Supreme Court handed down one of the most monumental opinions in its history, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown overturned the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which instituted state-sanctioned segregation in the United States for the next half century. In his unanimous opinion in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that segregated schools violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Brown has gone down as one of the most important opinions in the history of the Supreme Court. However, that hasn’t meant that school segregation has ended in America — in fact, recent evidence suggests that the problem is getting worse, not better.
Read the decision in Brown v. Board of Education at the National Archives and learn more about the case in our film, An Independent Judiciary.
Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox (Library of Congress)
“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
–Archibald Cox, in a statement after being fired by President Nixon
Yesterday’s firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump — amid an investigation by the FBI of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — has reminded many of the last time a president fired the person in charge of investigating him. In 1973, in the middle of the Watergate investigation, President Richard Nixon fired the special prosecutor in charge, Archibald Cox, after Cox subpoenaed Nixon for copies of Oval Office recordings. Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned in protest, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” (Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported the decision to fire Comey.) Public opinion turned against Nixon, as polls following Cox’s firing showed a majority of the country supporting impeachment. Congress began impeachment proceedings the following year and shortly after Nixon resigned.
Learn more about the Saturday Night Massacre, and the history of legal checks on rulers, in our film Magna Carta and the Constitution.
This photograph was taken 148 years ago today, when the last spike in the First Transcontinental Railroad was driven at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory. Not shown are the 10-15,000 Chinese immigrants who made up the majority of the workforce that laid nearly 2,000 miles of tracks, blasted through mountains, and dug the tunnels that joined the east and west coasts of the United States. Many of the Chinese workers were brought over from China explicitly to work on the railroads. Hundreds died. In 1882, 13 years after the railroad was complete, President Chester A. Arthur showed his appreciation by signing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese immigration in the U.S. It would remain in effect until 1943.
On May 10, 1886, 17 years to the day after the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed, Chinese Immigrants won a major victory for civil rights in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that even though they are not citizens, immigrants are still entitled to equal protection of the law under our Constitution. Learn more about Yick Wo and Chinese immigration to the U.S. in our film Yick Wo. and the Equal Protection Clause.
Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States has won a Gold Award at the CINDY Awards and a Silver Award at the Davey Awards. Freedom of the Press tells the stories of Americans who fought to protect the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press for all of us, even if it meant serving time in prison.