The United States of Embarrassment: How Concerns about the World’s View of America Propelled Justice Department Action in Civil Rights
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In the infancy of the Cold War, the Department of Justice submitted a series of amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court in support of civil rights for the first time in history. Curiously, these amicus briefs were laden with rhetoric about the hindrance the international spotlight on American racial discrimination had on foreign relations, national security, and America’s good image as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Why did the Department of Justice submit amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases concerning civil rights? Did the Department’s amicus briefs sway the Court in favor of racial equality? Did Truman encourage the Department’s involvement? Following World War II, the United States was in direct competition with the Soviet Union for international ideological, military, geopolitical, and monetary influence, especially regarding Third World nations emerging from decolonization in Africa and Southeast Asia. Armed with reports of mistreatment of African Americans in the U.S., the Soviet Union, allies, and Communist-associated countries were able to effectively demonstrate to those newly-emerging nations and the rest of the world that capitalism was innately flawed and denied minorities economic, legal, and social equality. That international pressure led directly to Truman’s Department of Justice intervening in landmark Supreme Court cases concerning civil rights through amicus curiae briefs, marking the first time in history that the U.S. government took an official, documented stand against segregation. The decision to initially intervene set a precedent for future judicial involvement by the Department of Justice, and led to the dismantling of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Figures within Truman’s Department of Justice, more so than Truman himself, were key in the writing and submission of amicus briefs in support of civil rights to the Supreme Court. Examining amicus curiae briefs, Supreme Court rulings, memos, press releases, and speeches revolving around Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Henderson v. United States (1950), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), it is clear that President Truman’s Department of Justice, carried on into Eisenhower’s presidency, had a significant hand in building the legal momentum of the civil rights movement.