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U.S. v. Cruikshank: 1875

Southern Racism Makes A Comeback, Supreme Court Delivers A Crushing Blow, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendants: William J. Cruikshank and others
Crimes Charged: 16 violations of federal law relating to the defendants' involvement in lynching two black men, including violating the victims' "right and privilege peaceably to assemble together."
Chief Defense Lawyers: E. John Ellis, David Dudley Field, Reverdy Johnson, R.H. Marr, Philip Phillips, and W.R. Whitaker
Chief Prosecutors: J.R. Beckwith, Edward Pierrepont, and Samuel F. Phillips
Judge: William B. Woods
Place: New Orleans, Louisiana
Date of Trial: 1874 April Term
Verdict: Guilty, overturned by U.S. Supreme Court
Sentence: None.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Supreme Court in Cruikshank severely limited the ability of the federal government to protect the civil rights of newly freed African-Americans. The federal government would not achieve the power to effectively protect civil rights until well into the 20th century.

In many ways, the Civil War began as a simple struggle between North and South over whether the Union would survive. Abolishing slavery became its primary purpose only after nearly two years of combat. President Abraham Lincoln was initially hesitant about freeing the slaves, and many leading Northerners, such as General George McClellan, were openly against abolition. After Lincoln finally decided to side with the abolitionists and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the Civil War became almost a crusade against slavery for the people of the North. Renewed popular enthusiasm for the war, plus the addition of black regiments to Union forces, contributed to victory for the North in 1865.

African-Americans were finally freed, but their hold on liberty was precarious. The former slaves were uneducated, poor, and dependent on white landowners for their living. Many left the land for the industrial cities of the North, but most stayed home because they had no skills other than as agricultural laborers. During the early years of Reconstruction, the South was under military occupation and ex-slaves in the states of the former Confederacy were protected from their former masters. Further, it seemed as if the abolitionists had succeeded in obtaining permanent and meaningful legal recognition of African-Americans' civil rights through a series of amendments to the Constitution.

The Thirteenth Amendment, forbidding slavery, was ratified in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment, providing for equal protection and due process under the law, was ratified in 1868. The Fifteenth Amendment, protecting the right to vote, was ratified in 1870. The Fourteenth Amendment is the most extensive of these three amendments, and based on it, Congress enacted legislation May 31, 1870 that made it a felony if two or more people conspired to deprive anyone of his federal civil rights.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882