February 19, 1923 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decided Moore v. Dempsey – A Seminal Step in the Enforcement of Civil Rights for Blacks

Moore et al. v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86 (1923), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled 6-2 that the defendants, who had been sentenced to death for murder, and having exhausted their remedies under Arkansas state law, could challenge their convictions in state court through writ of habeas corpus to an appropriate federal district court. (A writ of habeas corpus challenges the legality of imprisonment.) It was the first case in the twentieth century that came before the Court concerning the justice given to African-Americans in the South.

The precipitating event for the case was a race riot in Elaine, Arkansas which began on September 30, 1919, during which five white men were killed. Black sharecroppers were attending a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church in Hoop Spur in Phillips County, near Elaine. Many of the African American sharecroppers had not been paid fair shares for the products they grew and wanted to find out what union membership could do to help them. Union members brought armed guards to protect the meeting. A white deputy sheriff and a railroad detective, both armed, arrived at the meeting place and a fight broke out. In the ensuing gunfire the deputy sheriff was wounded and the railroad worker was killed. The violence expanded beyond the meeting place and fighting in the area lasted for three days. Word traveled to neighboring states through exaggerated newspaper reports that an ‘insurrection’ was occurring, which brought additional armed men into the county from outside to support the white citizens.


Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough received a request for help from area whites citing a ‘Negro uprising’. Brough contacted the War Department and requested federal troops. After considerable delay, approximately 600 U.S. troops arrived and found the town in chaos. The troops made their way to the area of the Hoop Spur Church where they had an exchange of gunfire with black farmers in the woods. Over the next few days the troops disarmed both parties and arrested over 700 blacks. Twelve of them were charged with the killings. During the trial heard by an all-white jury, a mob surrounded the courthouse shouting that if the accused were not put to death, the mob would lynch them. The prisoners told lawyers they were tortured to confess or to testify against others. After a short deliberation, the jury found each defendant guilty and the judge sentenced all twelve to death.

African Americans Indicted For Participating in the Elaine, Arkansas Riot

African Americans Indicted For Participating in the Elaine, Arkansas Riot

Walter White of the NAACP, in Arkansas posing as a newspaper reporter, saw the trial as “a lynching that wore the mask of law.” His investigation spurred the NAACP to hire local lawyers to appeal the death sentence. The attorneys argued that the presence of the mob outside the court during the trial made it impossible for the defendants to have a fair trial. The appellate courts of Arkansas did not overrule the convictions despite the allegations of impropriety in the trial, so the defendants sought relief through a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court.

The case reached the United States Supreme Court as an appeal of the federal district court’s dismissal of the writ of habeas corpus on demurrer. A demurrer challenges whether a legal cause of action has been pleaded. That is, the demurring party asserts that there is no legally valid claim even if the factual allegations of the complaint or counterclaim are accepted as true. In this instance, the State of Arkansas said that the presence of a lynch mob immediately outside the courtroom did not impede the trial proceedings, and therefore the verdicts and death sentences were valid in the absence of other technical procedural errors.


The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case to determine if the demurrer was justified. The ground for the writ of habeas corpus was that because of the presence of the mob, the “trial” did not constitute “due process of law” under the 14th Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the Court, noted: “According to the allegations and affidavits there never was a chance for the petitioners to be acquitted; no juryman could have voted for an acquittal and continued to live Phillips County and if any prisoner by any chance had been acquitted by a jury he could not have escaped the mob.” On February 19, 1923, the Court ruled that the appellants (the lead attorney for whom, Scipio Jones, was a former slave) had pleaded a valid cause of action.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Justice James McReynolds dissented from the Court’s holding. He argued that the federal courts could become clogged if convicted felons were able to avoid the holding of state appellate process simply by alleging violations of federal rights. McReynolds was a Southerner, a racist, and an anti-Semite who would leave the room whenever Justice Brandeis spoke. His arguments amounted to a classic case of using the so-called neutrality of law to perpetuate a racist agenda.

The majority of the Supreme Court, however, must have felt that the procedures available in some states (particularly in the South) were so unfair that a federal remedy had to be made available.

The case was sent back to the lower courts and Arkansas eventually freed all 12 men.


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