The Norman Transcript

April 27, 2009

Civil rights, yesterday and today

By Don Pope

May 1, 2009 is Law Day. Law Day is celebrated nation wide but was originated by Wewoka attorney Hicks Epton in 1958. This year the theme is "Legacy of Liberty-a celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln."

Lincoln was president during one of the most trying times in our country. His courage and tenacity helped preserve and shape the United States we know today. The legacy emanating from his decisions in three major areas will be presented in articles written by local attorneys this week. The first of those areas is related to civil rights.

Many of us, when we think of civil rights, think of the desegregation of schools in the 1950's and the civil rights movement, which led to broad ranging changes in our criminal and civil laws in U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 60s and 70s. Few are aware that the Civil Rights Act, Title 42 United States Code, Section 1983, was passed in the post civil war reconstruction period in 1871, originally called the Ku Klux Klan act.

One of the chief reasons for its passage was to protect southern blacks from the Ku Klux Klan by providing a civil remedy for abuses then being committed in the South and to protect those wronged through misuse of power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer had the authority of state law. For most of its history, the Act had very little effect. The legal community did not think the statute served as a check on state officials, and did not often litigate under the statute.

However, this changed in 1961 when the Supreme Court of the United States decided Monroe v. Pape In that case, the Court articulated three purposes that underlay the statute: 1) to override certain kinds of state laws; 2) to provide a remedy where state law was inadequate; and 3) to provide a federal remedy where the state remedy, though adequate in theory, was not available in practice. Pape opened the door for renewed interest in Section 1983.

Now the statute stands as one of the most powerful authorities with which State and federal courts may protect those whose rights are deprived.

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act provides a way individuals can sue to redress violations of federally protected rights, like First Amendment rights; the Due Process Clause; and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1983 can be used to enforce rights guaranteed by constitution and statutes of the United States, such as the prohibition of public sector employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion.

Such is the legacy of Lincoln's post war reconstruction which has profound impact on us today.

Don G. Pope, a Norman attorney, chairs Law Day in Cleveland County.