On this dayJun 02, 1961

Virginia Judge Upholds Racial Segregation in Courtrooms

Though courts are supposed to be committed to equal justice under law, judges throughout the country have oftentimes been more committed to racial hierarchy than to the Constitution. On June 2, 1961, a Virginia judge upheld racial segregation in courtrooms, dismissing a lawsuit filed by three Black men who challenged the practice, describing as “totally without merit” their allegation that segregating courtrooms was degrading.   

After being forced to sit separately from white community members in the municipal court in Petersburg, Virginia, George Wells, Rev. R. G. Williams, and Rev. Dr. Milton H. Reid sought an injunction to prevent Judge Herbert H. Gilliam, the Chief Judge of Petersburg’s municipal court, from continuing to subject Black community members to segregated seating. The lawsuit asserted that there was “no moral or legal justification for courtroom segregation,” calling the practice “degrading and shameful.” 

Federal Judge Oren R. Lewis dismissed the lawsuit on June 2, 1961, describing the allegations of mistreatment as meritless since an equal number of seats were provided to each of the segregated sections for Black and white community members. He added that segregated seating in courtrooms was a “long established practice,” and that Judge Gilliam had kept Black and white people separate to “preserve order and decorum in his courtroom.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court played a powerful role in protecting discriminatory Jim Crow laws for decades and shielding the South from challenges to its racial caste system. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court’s most well-known decision upholding segregation, the Court rejected Mr. Plessy’s argument that forced racial separation branded Black people as inferior, and countered, “If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

Read EJI’s report, Segregation in America, to learn more about the campaign of massive resistance to integration that the broader white community waged—along with the support of judges and courts across the country—which succeeded in keeping schools, courtrooms, and other public spaces segregated for decades.

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