KNOW YOUR RIGHTS! By Oliver Nelson—A brief history of the Supreme Court and civil rights

“A right delayed is a right denied.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
My name is Oliver Edward Nelson, III. I am an attorney at Magna Law, a minority-owned local law firm. Our firm’s motto is “Serving Our Community,” and I am hopeful that I can use this space to, in some way, further that end. My intended purpose for this column is to (hopefully) help members of our community to better know and understand their rights; hence, the name of my new column is this: “Know Your Rights!”

Being a lawyer, I will be focusing this column mostly on legal issues. This being my first piece, I wanted to write about the Supreme Court cases that have been reflective of our people’s and our country’s long, painful march toward fairness.
Like our country, the United States Supreme Court certainly has not always applied the concept of “All Men Are Created Equal” equally. Slavery in America existed long after the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.
The court, in Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), in essence legitimized slavery by ruling that slaves can be treated like property and that the Constitution does not protect slaves or even former slaves.
According to the court in the Dred Scott decision, the authors of the Constitution had regarded all Black people “as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.”
After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, various states, primarily in the South, began implementing what became known as Jim Crow laws. These laws allowed for the segregation of races. The Supreme Court was again on the wrong side of history when it issued it’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). The court held that racial segregation laws were, indeed, constitutional.
With the court’s approval, the Jim Crow ideology remained fundamentally in place well into the 1950’s. In large part, this gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement. This movement was multi-pronged. There were marches and speeches. There were boycotts and acts of civil disobedience.
And there were also lawsuits. Five such cases were consolidated into a single case that brought about a landmark decision that changed our nation. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court overturned the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The court found that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” State-sponsored segregation was deemed unconstitutional.
Indeed, civil rights litigation has been of tremendous importance in this country. Thousands of such cases have been filed over the years. Many remain highly influential. We the people have come a long way, and our march toward fairness continues.

The information that you read in this column is general in nature and is not meant to be a substitute for specific legal advice from an attorney.
Oliver Nelson is an attorney at Magna Law Firm in Golden Valley. For questions or column subject suggestions, call 763-417-0091 or email