While the battle against fascism was won during World War II, in the years following the war Americans were faced with the existing double standard of having fought for freedom abroad while there was still a system of discrimination at home. This video from The Supreme Court discusses how, over the next 20 years, American society and the Supreme Court faced an upward climb to make fairness and equality the law.
In its first 130 years, the Supreme Court issued comparatively few decisions addressing civil rights and liberties of individuals. After World War II, when the United States emerged as a global leader defending democratic values and personal freedoms, the Supreme Court began to change course as well.
For many Americans, the reasons for fighting in World War II were substantial --- to protect the right to self-determination, to guarantee freedom from fascism and authoritarian terror, to guard freedom of religion and the inherent rights of all people to be treated equally. As illustrated in the film segment, then Vice President Henry Wallace said, “This is a fight between a free world and a slave world.”
With some clear exceptions, the world did become more democratic after World War II. Between 1945 and 1965, territories under the control of the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom were either granted or fought and won independence from their former colonial powers. People in those former colonies (mostly in Asia and Africa) achieved independence and the right to self-determination and to exercise their political freedoms.
Back at home in the U.S. democracy moved slowly. After the war, many Americans felt betrayed for having fought “over there” for freedoms they lacked here at home. There are many principles that define democracy. Certainly one important characteristic of a democracy is “free and fair elections” yet Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandered legislative districts, and voter intimidation interfered with many poor and African American peoples’ right to vote and their political participation. It took nearly twenty years for the Court to strike down literacy tests and poll taxes in state and federal elections and for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed many of the discriminatory practices that had been responsible for disenfranchising so many African Americans.
NARRATOR: The Second World War changed America in every way. It cast Americans as defenders of liberty worldwide at a time when six newly appointed justices were just beginning to find their way on the Supreme Court.
KOBYLKA: It's a time of a rising sense of defending the values of Western civilization, in a sense, defending the product of the Enlightenment against the totalitarian hordes that Hitler represented.
GILLMAN: The United States enters this war against fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And what happens in the course of that engagement was that America begins to define itself in terms of that conflict.
NARRATOR: The war changed American ideas on individual liberty and government power. It showed a whole generation the wider world, and convinced that generation there was nothing America couldn't do-the most powerful nation the world had ever seen-and because of our freedoms, because of our rights.
Over the next quarter century, that belief would push the nation, and its Supreme Court, to a new agenda, onto unexplored terrain.
BISKUPIC: This a watershed time in the Court's history. You have World War II. You have McCarthyism. You have the Cold War. You have the civil rights struggles. There's tension between national security, national identity, free speech, individual rights.
And it falls into the lap of these nine justices to sort it all out. They don't move in a straight line. They move in fits and starts. They have to backtrack, but eventually we really have a remade Court and a remade idea of individual rights and civil liberties in America.
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