The Story Behind the Case: NAACP v. Alabama

In his article, “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice,” William Quigley encourages students to think critically about the formation of our laws, particularly the “unstated implications of race, class, and gender.”[1] He also recommends studying the real history of our legal processes to understand how laws came into being; he argues, “learning this history will help you understand how change comes about.”[2] NAACP v. Alabama kicked off an eight-year long struggle between the state and the organization that required four trips to the U.S. Supreme Court and prevented the NAACP from operating in Alabama from 1956 to 1963, key years in the fight for civil rights. Examining the long process through which the NAACP and other lawyers fought segregation pulls back the curtain on history to show the details of the struggle for civil rights, and can provide a roadmap for future activists in their own efforts.

Ellie Campbell, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

In early 1956, the Alabama attorney general’s office sued the NAACP in retaliation against the state’s African-American community for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the organization’s participation in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, an incident that kicked off a long-planned bus boycott in Montgomery.[3] Various African-American community groups had registered complaints with the City Commission about their treatment on the city’s buses as early as 1953.[4] The day Ms. Parks was arrested, the Montgomery Women’s Political Committee called a meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and a boycott was declared.[5] The NAACP was only indirectly involved in the boycott; many of the participants were members, but community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to oversee the boycott because they believed the white community distrusted the NAACP and would not deal with anyone claiming to be a representative.[6]

The boycott lasted for 382 days; it only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the city’s segregation ordinance and ordered the desegregation of the city’s bus system on December 17.[7] The white community responded by joining the White Citizens’ Council in droves; snipers fired on buses several times in 1957, and four black churches and several homes were bombed.[8] Alabama’s political leadership had been wary of involvement in the bus boycott and other racial issues; earlier that year, Governor Jim Folsom and Attorney General John Patterson chose to leave those considerations to the city of Montgomery.[9] After Brown v. Board, their white constituency demanded a response.[10] Because he was planning a run for governor in 1958, Attorney General John Patterson proved responsive.[11] He filed suit with the circuit court in Montgomery, seeking an injunction to prevent the NAACP from operating in the state of Alabama.[12]

When Patterson decided that the attorney general’s office needed to become more involved in the fight to uphold segregation, he had his attorneys closely examine the NAACP’s operations in the state.[13] Under Alabama law, “foreign” corporations had to qualify under the state’s corporation law in order to do business in the state, and the statute required that certain documents be filed with the state.[14] The NAACP was incorporated in New York and maintained a regional office in Birmingham, from which it “conducted business” like soliciting members, collecting dues, and managing lawsuits.[15] For Patterson’s purposes, this made the NAACP a “foreign corporation” operating illegally in Alabama.[16]

He filed suit in June of 1956, seeking an injunction to stop the group from operating in Alabama, which was immediately granted by Judge Walter B. Jones, an ardent segregationist.[17] Soon after, he also filed a petition to compel the organization to produce records on its activities, including “charters in Alabama, membership lists, names of persons who had contributed money in the past year, records of property ownership, bank statements, and correspondence dealing with civil rights activities.”[18] The state also accused the organization of organizing and financing the bus boycott and soliciting two black students to attempt to enroll at the University of Alabama.[19] Arthur Shores, the lead attorney representing the NAACP (and one of only five or six African-American attorneys in Alabama at the time) called Patterson’s suit “a fishing expedition.”[20] Judge Jones decided for the state and set a date for the NAACP to file the documents. Of course they did not, and the judge found them in contempt of court and fined them $10,000, to increase to $100,000 if they did not comply in five days.[21]

The NAACP decided to fight the order to produce the membership list, and offered some of the requested documents instead, including a list of names and addresses of the organization’s officers.[22] They were worried that production of their rank-and-file membership list would lead to “economic pressure and personal threats and acts of violence.”[23] Considering the violent responses to the bus boycott, their fears were well founded. Arthur Shores and Fred Grey, two African-American attorneys from Alabama, headed the case with help from Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.[24] Both Grey and Shores would have long careers supporting the civil rights movement through using their legal skills. When the Alabama Supreme Court refused to modify or stay the contempt fine, they filed suit in the United States Supreme Court.[25] On June 30, 1958, the United States Supreme Court ruled:

“the immunity from state scrutiny of membership lists which the Association claims on behalf of its members is here so related to the right of the members to pursue their lawful private interests and to associate freely with others as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.”[26]

The court further ruled that the state of Alabama had failed to show a “controlling justification for the deterrent effect” on the members’ freedom of association.[27] The court lifted the civil contempt charge and the $100,000 fine, but refused to rule on the state’s temporary restraining order, leaving the NAACP still enjoined from operating within the state.[28] Only the contempt charge and fine had gone through the state’s appellate system, while the NAACP’s challenge to the restraining order had been joined with the appeal on those issues.[29] So the organization went back to Alabama state court to fight out the case on the restraining order.

Over the next five years, the NAACP experienced the one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of fighting segregation in the Southern court system. The suit was remanded to the Alabama Supreme Court. In February of 1959, that court decided that though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the NAACP did not have to turn over its memberships lists, the contempt of court charge still held for the “certain other books, papers, and documents” described in the previous Alabama Supreme Court decision.[30] Therefore it upheld the contempt charge again. The NAACP appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled again, in a per curiam opinion, that the Alabama Supreme Court had previously only ruled on the membership lists, and could not now protest over any other documents.[31] The court pointedly noted, “we assume that the State Supreme Court, thus advised, will not fail to proceed promptly with the disposition of the matter s left open under our mandate for further proceedings.”[32] Nevertheless, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision remanding the case to the circuit court even though it “disagree[d] with the conclusions reached by the Federal Supreme Court.[33] It also upheld the injunction against the NAACP.[34]  The case was again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which again declared the contempt charge invalid and ordered the state courts to hear the case on the merits.

The Montgomery Circuit Court then sat on the lawsuit for two years before finally issuing an opinion in December of 1961 in which it dissolved the temporary injunction and replaced it with a permanent injunction again barring the NAACP from operating in the state of Alabama.[35] The Alabama Supreme Court did not rule on the injunction until February of 1963. Hilariously, it noted, “this court has one set of rules for all litigants, and all are treated alike, regardless of whom they may be. We are not a court which treats most litigants one way, but has favored and special treatment for the litigant who comes into court on an alleged racial issue.”[36] The NAACP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for the fourth time. Though the state courts had again relied entirely on procedural grounds and not addressed the case on its merits, the U.S. Supreme Court finally exercised its powers to address those issues.[37] It ruled that the NAACP’s failure to comply with Alabama’s regulations for foreign corporations did not constitute good reason for permanently barring them from operating in the state.[38] The Supreme Court again remanded back to the state courts, this time with specific instructions to allow the NAACP to register to do business in Alabama.[39] The Alabama Supreme Court wrote a short opinion in which it both registered its displeasure with the U.S. Supreme Court’s direction but finally upheld the dissolution of the injunction.[40] So after nearly nine years and four trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, the NAACP was finally allowed to operate in the state of Alabama.

NAACP v. Alabama cannot be taken out of its historical context. It was part of a larger fight, in the courts, on the streets, and in the public imagination, over how this country’s future should be shaped. As such, it represents one small tactic in a much larger movement. Though the case took nine years, and the organizations and its members ended up, legally speaking, back where they started – able to operate in Alabama – the fight as a whole had a much larger impact that can still be seen today. The NAACP’s legal case was unlikely to change the hearts and minds of Alabama’s white communities. But the bus boycott, the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and Brown v. Board of Education were not only designed to attack the state’s laws, but the law’s underlying assumptions as well, that Alabama’s African-American people had as much right to ride a bus or go to school as any white person.

[1] William P. Quigley, Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice, 1 DePaul Journal of Social Justice 7, 19.

[2] Id. at 18.

[3] Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice 424 (The New Press 2009).

[4] William Warren Rogers, et al., Alabama: History of a Deep South State 553 (University of Alabama Press 2004).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 554.

[8] Id.

[9] Warren Trest, Nobody but the People: The Life and Times of Alabama’s Youngest Governor 200 (New South Books 2008).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 203.

[13] Id. at 202.

[14] Id. at 202-203.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 202.

[17] Id. at 203.

[18] Id. at 203-204.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 204.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 466 (1958).

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Trest, supra note 9, 205.

[30] Ex Parte NAACP, 268 Ala. 531, 533 (Ala. 1959).

[31] NAACP v. Alabama, 360 U.S. 240, 243 (1959).

[32] Id. at 245.

[33] Ex Parte NAACP, 271 Ala. 33 (Ala. St. C. 1960).

[34] Id.

[35] NAACP v. State, 274 Ala. 544, 544 (Ala. St. C. 1963).

[36] Id. at 545.

[37] NAACP v. Alabama, 377 U.S. 288, 294 (1964).

[38] Id. at 310.

[39] Id.

[40] NAACP v. Alabama 167 So. 2d 171 (Ala. St. C. 1964).

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