In the United States, the court ruled on irrational decisions. The NAACP and legal activists for LGBT couples used legal mobilization as a strategy to prove it affected disadvantaged people the most. Legal mobilization is a strategy to use the law and courts to win social movement gains (Lecture, Sept. 25). They claimed that there were conflicts in the past and present court cases, but there were obstacles to overcome. Their claims lacked factual information and people supporting their movement. The two groups had to change their strategies and often waited for changes to be made. Ultimately, they did secure a win for their communities but not in the way they initially wanted.
To illustrate, the court ruled the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ after the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case (Scott 119). This case was significant because it resulted in segregation between white and black children in public schools (122). Carter represented the NAACP and used damage imagery as a strategy (122). Carter’s thesis was that segregated schools: damaged black children’s psyches, came from schools, and it affected their ability to learn (Scott 122, Lecture, Sept. 25). He supported his claim by referencing previous court rulings. For example, in the Sweatt vs. Painter case, the court found that segregation in Utah law schools violated the 14th amendment (121). The court claimed that the white and black schools were unequal in the quality of education (121). This shows that the decisions in the Sweatt and Plessy cases conflicted with each other. The NAACP argued that the 14th amendment was passed to provide equal rights to African Americans, but clearly, segregated law schools were not equal. This showed that segregated law schools were similar to segregated public schools.
Also, the McLaurin vs. Oklahoma case showed that segregation at universities also violated the 14th amendment (Scott 121). McLaurin shared the same facilities and courses as his peers, but he was segregated from the classroom and the cafeteria (121). Carter claimed that the isolation was detrimental to McLaurin’s psyche and affected his ability to learn (Lecture, Sept. 25). This shows that McLaurin was negatively impacted by segregation which is a violation of the constitution. The two cases used damaged imagery as evidence to prove that segregation in schools was not equal (122). The cases demonstrated inequality, but they lacked factual proof.
Furthermore, Carter’s thesis was difficult to prove because no one published or was studying segregation in public schools (Scott 122). Carter approached Clark for assistance because he did a self-hate study on children living in segregation, but his study was not reliable (123). Clark could not separate the school’s factors the environmental (123). This was evident in the Briggs vs. Elliot case. For example, Clark’s group claimed that black children identifying with white images might be color blind (123). They also claimed that it was reasonable for a light-skinned black to identify with the white doll because they had similar features (123). This evidence did not support Carter’s thesis, but it did suggest that southern black adults felt inferior to white people at a young age (123).
Subsequently, this stems from the court's view in the Plessy case that inferiority was only in the minds of black people (Lecture, Sept. 25). This connects to Lawin’s self-hate theory that people feel inferior when they are close to a dominant group (Scott 124). People supporting segregation stated that segregated schools would be a safe environment for black children (124). The NAACP realized that the court would be more empathetic to children than adults, so they used that to their advantage (Lecture, Sept. 25). Segregationists tried to find an expert to counter the NAACP’s claims but failed (Lecture). Ninety percent of social scientists thought that segregation was damaging to children and agreed that black children were harmed psychologically from segregation (Lecture).
The last compelling argument was when Marshall and Carter stated that segregation violated the 14th amendment because ‘race was not a valid basis for classification’ (Scott 130). From the NAACP's undeniable proof, the court reached a unanimous decision to overturn segregation (130). Chief Justice Warren released a statement saying the court recognized the psychological damage segregation did to Plessy but did not have the science to prove it (Lecture, Sept. 25). The court failed to address the negative implications that the ruling had on black children’s psyches. He stated that the ruling worked during that time, but laws change to fit the evolving society (Lecture).
Similarly, legal activists for LGBT couples used the same strategy of the NAACP’s. (Lecture, Sept. 25). The activists claimed that banning same-sex marriage was a violation of the 14th amendment (Lecture). They first led civil unions, then used the separate is not equal claim, and lastly conservative principles (Lecture). For example, the Supreme Court told the legislature to either legalize marriage or provide civil unions (Barnes). Hawaii chose to do civil unions and a couple of years later, the court ruled that not allowing same-sex marriage was a violation of the constitution (Lecture). Similar to the doctrine in Plessy, they used the ‘separate is seldom, if ever equal’ claim to show that separate laws allowing only heterosexuals were wrong (Lecture).
Fast-forwarding years later, Massachusetts became the first state where gay couples could marry, but it received backlash from the government (Barnes). For example, President Bush wanted to ban same-sex marriage and led to other states changing their constitutions (Barnes). The court justified marriage stating that unstable relationships of heterosexuals were a greater danger to children growing up in the household (Barnes). In contrast, the court claimed that gay couples were more responsible parents and that marriage was not needed (Barnes). This claim shows that it was not necessary for gay couples to marry because they were already responsible. This was not a rational argument, so the activists asked some people to help.
To explain, legal activists sought conservative Icon Olsen and District Judge Walker to help their case. For example, Olsen wrote an article about gay marriage from a conservative view and took the case to the Supreme Court (Barnes). The activists were afraid that the article was too soon for the Supreme Court to rule for gay marriage (Barnes). Judge Walker, however, wrote a 136-page ruling in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that Prop 8 violated the 14th amendment (Barnes, Lecture Sept. 25). However, Walker’s ruling would prove to be biased because he was gay and in a long-term relationship (Barnes).
Another obstacle that they faced was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which was a law that stopped federal recognition of same-sex marriages (Barnes). Activists responded by abandoning the law which resulted in President Obama disapproving DOMA (Barnes). The strategy of waiting and trying a new strategy proved to be successful. This was when the media started to play a big part in securing the win.
Lastly, nonlegal activism outside the court did aid activists for LGBT because public mobilization has a legal effect (Lecture Sept. 25). For example, the LGBT pressured Obama to fulfill his campaign promises for the gay community (Lecture). Roberts from ABC interviewed Obama during his term, and he stated his support for gay marriage (Barnes). Using the media was successful because Maryland, Maine, and Washington approved same-sex marriage (Lecture).
Finally, public mobilization helped gay rights activists, but it also aided the NACCP’s success. Public mobilization put cultural pressure on the courts to change the law (Lecture Sept. 25). Society is constantly evolving, and the law has to change with it. For example, Warren released a public opinion of the court stating that southerners are good people and they were just following the law (Lecture). Warren wanted to let southerners know that it was not their fault that segregation harmed children and that they were just following the law (Lecture). The NAACP’s way of showing the cultural changes in society made the court pay attention to previous rulings.
To conclude, both the NAACP and activists for gay couples used legal mobilization to win their cases. This was not easy because there was not much evidence to support their claims. Eventually, both groups found that waiting and trying new strategies would work in their favor. The NAACP claimed that race is not a valid classification for segregation, so the courts overturned the ruling. The gay rights activists used public mobilization to win their case. Ultimately both groups were successful, but the court failed to state the negative implications their rulings had on the law. For the NAACP, black children’s psyches were damaged, and overturning the ruling would not reverse it. For gay rights activists, the court failed to see the emotional damage it might have had on the gay couples and their children. The court does not take account of their actions and as a result, people get hurt.
- Barnes, Robert. “Decades of Battles Converged for Momentous Decision.” The Washington Post, WP Company, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/06/27/decades-of-battles-converged-for-momentous-decision/.
- Kohler, Kristopher. Week 6, Lecture 1-Legal Mobilization- Brown. Mount St. Mary’s University, 2019, Sept 25.
- Scott, Daryl Michael. Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. pp. 119-136.