International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2016 Issue



The Steady March for Civil Rights in the United States – the Experience of the U.S. District Court of Maryland

Peter J. Messitte, Judge, U.S. District Court, District of MarylandBy: Peter J. Messitte, Judge, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland*

I remember traveling across the Chesapeake Bay to Ocean City on the ferry, which had separate waiting rooms, bathrooms and water fountains for white and colored. I was astonished as a 15 year old grill worker in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, when I invited a black man standing outside the restaurant ordering a hamburger through the window to come in and sit down and he told me he was sorry but that I had no idea what I was talking about. I especially remember at Glen Echo Amusement Park in Cabin John, Maryland, where American blacks were not admitted, but blacks from Africa were, so that some Howard University students dressed up in dashikis in order to get into the Park, ride the roller coaster and scarf cotton candy.

But there were obviously many developments, well before my personal experiences and certainly after them, that reveal what has unquestionably been major progress towards civil rights for African Americans in this country. A permanent exhibit has been installed at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland where I sit. It is entitled the “March of Civil Rights and the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.” It traces some of the leading cases seeking to enforce equal rights for African Americans that have been heard in this court since the 19th century. The exhibit opened in October,2015 and the public of course is invited to visit and observe.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland was established on September 24, 1789 in Baltimore. It was one of the very first federal courts established in the new United States. I am able to speak with at least some personal knowledge about civil rights issues involved in cases in this court because in 1994, less than a year after I was named to the federal bench, I inherited the Prince George’s County school desegregation case, and thereafter, especially from 1998 through 2003, I worked with the parties as they reached an agreement to end court-ordered busing and provide other relief.

The whole issue of slavery was deferred at the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the federal Judiciary Act of 1789 was enacted. There were many highly controversial race-related events leading up to the U.S. Civil War, which was essentially about slavery. Although the Emancipation Proclamation issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed effective January 1, 1863, it did not apply to Maryland because the Proclamation was a war-time measure that applied to states in rebellion against the Union and Maryland was never in rebellion against the Union. Slavery in border states such as Maryland remained untouched.

It wasn’t until November 1, 1864, over150 years ago, that amendments to the Maryland Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. This in fact took place a few months before the passage on January 31, 1865, of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. However African Americans did not immediately win freedom in Maryland even following the Maryland State Constitutional Amendment of 1864 and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.

One unfortunate development that immediately came into being was the “Apprenticeship System.” Under this system, former slave owners would induce former slaves, in exchange for a modest sum, to apprentice their children back to the former slave owners under indenture contracts whereby the slave owners were to ostensibly teach the children the “habits of industry.” The Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest state court, had side- stepped the opportunity to decide whether this amounted to involuntary servitude under the U.S. Constitution. But in the case of In Re Turner,  decided in 1867, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Salmon P. Chase, sitting as a circuit judge in the District of Maryland, found that the system violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision in that case ended the system.

Segregation, of course, persisted in many forms. Indeed, in 1896, challenges in federal courts led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared that separate but equal transportation facilities were constitutional. To be sure, this was an affirmation of segregation – but at the same time, it also spoke to the requirement of equality of facilities, even if separate, a critical step forward in the march of progress of civil rights.

Maryland, through U.S. District Court decisions, had anticipated this outcome. In 1870, in the case of Thompson v. Baltimore City Passenger Railroad Company,  presided over by U.S. District Judge William Fells Giles, damages were awarded to an African-American man, Alexander Thompson, who had been expelled from a Baltimore City public railroad company street car because of his race. In ruling on the railroad company’s motion to dismiss the claim as not stating a cause of action, the judge reasoned that all rights and protections against racial discrimination should apply. No carrier of passengers, no public conveyance could deny persons of color the privilege that other passengers received. “(N)o common carrier,” said Judge Giles, “has a right to refuse to carry a peaceable man who is willing to pay his fare.” Yet here, too, a critical fact was that there were no equal accommodations available to black passengers.

In 1885, in the admiralty case in Maryland’s federal court of The Sue, U.S. District Judge Thomas John Morris found in favor of plaintiffs, two  African-American sisters, whose accommodations on the steamer Sue fell far short of the first class tickets they had purchased. The sisters refused to sleep in a segregated cabin of inferior size and condition. The steamship owners were ordered to pay the sisters the sum of $100.00 each.

Into the 20th Century, efforts to achieve equality continued. President Teddy Roosevelt was bold in inviting African-American scientist and educator Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House in 1901. The invitation caused a huge outcry from southern politicians and the press, part of the continuous opposition of many individuals to any effort of African-Americans to obtain equality. However the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching remained conspicuous misdeeds well into the 20th Century.

Yet there were two law-related events in Maryland in the 1930's that, while they did not involve U.S. district court decisions, ultimately had great symbolic significance. In 1930, an aspiring young African- American from Baltimore named Thurgood Marshall was denied entry into the University of Maryland Law School because of his race. In 1937, another young African-American, Donald Murray, represented by the very same, by-then attorney Thurgood Marshall (who had gone to Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. and later became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), was admitted to the University of Maryland Law School by order of a Baltimore city circuit judge. This was not a decision of our federal district court. I cite it not only as a marker of what was happening in the courts of Maryland, but also because of how his experience in Maryland must have helped shape Thurgood Marshall’s views about civil rights by the time he became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed Plessy v. Ferguson, finding that separate but equal schools were “inherently unequal.” And following that decision came the surge of civil rights activities in the 1960s and 1970s, involving the vigorous push for voting rights and integration of schools and public facilities.


Those activities brings focus to that was happening in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Notwithstanding the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the school system in Prince George’s County remained segregated well after 1954. Because of that fact, in 1971 a group of African American parents led by Sylvester Vaughns, and later (1981) the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed lawsuits against the county board of education seeking to integrate the public schools, which, as of 1971, had approximately 163,000 students, some 78% of whom were white.

When the suit was filed, there was no southern division of the U.S. District Court, which now sits in Greenbelt, Prince George’s County. The case was handled in Maryland’s single district court, located in Baltimore. It was presided over by Judge Frank A. Kaufman, a jurist of towering intellect and ability. It was Judge Kaufman who, by a decision in December, 1972, established a desegregation plan that called for student reassignment and, where necessary, busing of students across the County school system to promote integration of public schools.

Judge Kaufman’s court-ordered busing remained in effect for 25 years, continuously attended by loud protests on both sides of the issue. Indeed, court- ordered school busing stirred controversy all across the nation. It did involve serious inconveniences for citizens, both blacks and whites, but the laudable goal remained, working at the critical school level, to promote equal educational opportunity.

When I inherited the Prince George’s county case in 1994, after the Southern Division of the U.S. District Court had opened in Greenbelt and Judge Kaufman had taken senior status, court-ordered busing was still very much in effect. I was immediately called upon to make decisions intended to maintain racial balance in the county schools.

But many parents black and white, even some members of the NAACP, had come to feel that mandatory busing had outlived its usefulness, especially in a school system that had become overwhelmingly black. The County Board of Education itself had already begun to develop a plan to gradually end involuntary busing and return to newly-enhanced neighborhood schools.

I was keeping an eye on developments in court-ordered school busing cases around the country. A number of courts had begun to bring busing programs to closure. And it occurred to me that it might well be time to see whether court-ordered school busing in Prince George’s County should also be brought to an end. On August 9, 1996, I ordered a comprehensive review of court-ordered desegregation in Prince George’s County.

Among the questions I indicated I would consider were whether there was “still a role for the Court to play in its oversight of Prince George’s County schools” and whether there were “different or additional directions that would enhance the desegregation effort.” In preparing for this, I consulted with various judges around the country and came to the conclusion that it would be extremely informative if an advisory blue ribbon panel, composed of individuals well-versed in matters of school administration, could hold a series of hearings around Prince George’s County to see whether there were still vestiges of segregation evident in the school system. And in 1996 I appointed such a panel consisting of four individuals – some white, some black – including a former school superintendent, a political science professor, an education consultant, and a university administrator.

Finally the parties did come to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would settle the litigation and that agreement was presented to me by mid- 1998. Ultimately I approved the agreement as fair and reasonable, finding “More than that, [I wrote] . . . the agreement [is] a fitting denouement to one of the most serious dramas of modern America.”

And so in 1998 court-ordered school busing that had begun in 1972, ended, though of course everyone understood it would take some time to implement all the terms and conditions of the settlement. In fact, I would not finally sign off on implementation of the agreement until the middle of 2003. Whatever the impact of busing may have had for individuals - the march of civil rights continued forward.

Several other cases came before the United States District Court both before and during the life of the Prince George’s County case clearly demonstrate this. Maryland’s Federal District Court Judges found constitutional violations in discriminatory public golf courses,  seating in movie theaters, union hiring halls,  and racial profiling traffic stops. And The U.S. Supreme Court, in a Maryland based case, found such violations with respect to community swimming pools.

There will undoubtedly be further cases where our Court will confront racial issues. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  for example, discrimination in employment based on race (among other prohibited categories) continues to be litigated. But even here, I would say, employers and their counsel nowadays are far more sensitive to any possible suggestion of discrimination in employment based on race (and the other protected categories) than they were in the past, such that many of these cases resolve before they come to court.

I would like to end on one final note:

I recently had occasion to preside at a Naturalization Ceremony for new citizens at the Greenbelt courthouse. Traditionally the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) send representatives and speakers to hand out flags and certificates to the new citizens, then host a punch and cookies reception after the ceremony.

In 1939 the DAR denied the great African-American opera singer Marian Anderson the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall, which the DAR owned. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned her membership in the DAR because of this action, and then arranged for Ms. Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, where 75,000 people heard her sing.

The DAR changed its policies years later: indeed Marian Anderson eventually performed concerts at Constitution Hall.

But what struck me most at the naturalization ceremony over which I presided was that one of the members of the DAR, all bedecked in ribbons and medals, was an African-American lady. In fact, as I explored the issue further afterwards, I found that African-Americans played a notable role in the American Revolution. And I was able to witness that some of their descendants have been accepted as members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Another small step forward in the march for civil rights.

People of good will continue to be hopeful that we will move closer toward equal rights for all in the coming years. Since the 19th century, there has been, and there always will be, the law and the courts to help make this happen. Our exhibit on the March of Civil Rights and the United States District Court for the District of Maryland is open at the U.S. Courthouse in Greenbelt and the public is invited to come in and view it.

Note: This article has been adapted from a speech given by Judge Messitte at Maryland Day in Historic St.Mary’s City in Maryland in March, 2015.

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© 2016 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

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