The U. S. Supreme Court has been called upon on numerous occasions to address the constitutionality of state actions that may involve racial discrimination. Prior to the enactment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, the Court rendered several decisions on the issue of slavery, many of which affected the future of the United States regarding the Civil War. The most significant of these decisions occurred in 1857, when the Court in Scott v. Sanford decided that slaves were not “citizens” as the term was used in the Constitution. The Court also determined Congress could not constitutionally prohibit slavery in the territories.
After the enactment of the Constitutional Amendments during the reconstruction period after the Civil War, the Court was called upon to decide a number of issues related to these amendments and civil rights legislation passed during this period. The most significant of these cases was called the Civil Rights Cases, in which the court restricted considerably the power of Congress to proscribe discrimination by operators of public accommodations. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Constitution did not prohibit states from enacting laws that distinguished people of different races. In the fifty years after Plessy v. Ferguson, states could constitutionally segregate members of different races under the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. The Court reversed its position in 1954 with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which also led to the enactment of the civil rights legislation by Congress.