1963 April 2

Supreme Court Invalidates Virginia Anti-NAACP Laws, Upholds Lawyers’ Activism


On September 29, 1956, the state of Virginia passed five laws directed at the NAACP and other civil rights laws organizations. The laws regulated the practices of “barratry,” “champerty,” and “maintenance.” Barratry is the term for “stirring up” litigation by inducing individuals or organizations to sue when they otherwise would not have. In NAACP v. Button, decided this day, the Supreme Court declared the barratry law an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

The Virginia anti-NAACP laws were part of the “massive resistance” to racial integration among Southern states in the 1950s. The major efforts included the “Southern Manifesto” signed by 100 members of Congress on March 12, 1956, pledging to resist the integration of public schools; a 1956 Alabama law requiring the disclosure of members of private organizations, which was directed at the NAACP and which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on June 30, 1958; and the decision in Prince Edward County, Virginia, on May 1, 1959, to close the entire public school system rather than integrate them.

Justice Brennan for the Court: “Resort to the courts to seek vindication of constitutional rights is a different matter from the oppressive, malicious, or avaricious use of the legal process for purely private gain. Lawsuits attacking racial discrimination, at least in Virginia, are neither very profitable nor very popular.”

Read: Gilbert Jones, Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909–1969 (2012)

Learn more: George Lewis, Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (2006)

Learn about the contributions of the civil rights movement to civil liberties: Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First Amendment (1965)

See what the NAACP LDF is doing today:  http://www.naacpldf.org/

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