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Guinn v. United States - The Supreme Court Decides

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Taft lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. Despite the fact that Wilson was a Democrat and a Southerner, many civil rights leaders saw him as their best hope. But would he agree with the United States' position in the case of Guinn and Beal? These two officials had turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, claiming that they should not be prosecuted for upholding the law of their state. The Eight Circuit, in turn, sent the matter to the Supreme Court. At this point, the Justice Department had the option of backing down. It was under no obligation to carry on the case.

It is hard to know why the Wilson administration went ahead with Guinn v. United States. On one hand, Wilson had made a campaign promise to deal fairly with black people, and such leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington had supported him. On the other hand, as soon as he got into office, his administration began to segregate government cafeterias, to divide black and white employees at the Treasury and Post Office Departments, and even to screen off the desks of black civil servants. Despite the fact that the civil service had been integrated for 50 years, Wilson chose to segregate it.

Perhaps that was all the more reason for Wilson to proceed with Guinn. He may have thought he needed some way to win black political support. Perhaps he genuinely thought he was being even-handed. It is possible that the Guinn case simply fell through the cracks, a bureaucratic leftover from a previous administration that no one took the trouble to re-decide. In any case, the Grandfather clause case went to court.

The Supreme Court took over a year and a half to decide on Guinn v. United States. Unanimously (Justice McReynolds took no part), the Court ruled that the Oklahoma law was in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. The ruling specified that literacy tests per se were not unconstitutional. But in this case, the literacy test was so intertwined with the Grandfather clause that it clearly had no purpose except to keep black people from voting. Therefore, it was unconstitutional.

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