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1. Buchanan v. Warley (1917)
In 1914 the city of Louisville, Kentucky passed a Jim Crow residential segregation ordinance. Enacted “to prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races,” the law made it a crime for blacks to live on majority-white blocks and for whites to live on majority-black blocks. To spark a test case, the NAACP arranged for one of its black members to buy property in a white neighborhood from a local realtor who also opposed the law.
Arguing the case before the Supreme Court was NAACP President Moorfield Storey, a prominent libertarian lawyer who helped found both the NAACP and the Anti-Imperialist League. The Louisville segregation law, Storey argued, “destroys, without due process of law, fundamental rights attached by law to ownership of property.”
The Supreme Court agreed that it did. “Property is more than the mere thing which a person owns,” Justice William Day declared in his majority opinion in Buchanan v. Warley. “It is elementary that it includes the right to acquire, use, and dispose of it.” Moreover, Day held, the 14th Amendment “operate[s] to qualify and entitle a colored man to acquire property without state legislation discriminating against him solely because of color.”
It was the NAACP’s first great legal victory, and it rested firmly upon a libertarian defense of property rights. It was also a crucial moment in the early civil rights struggle. As George Mason University legal scholar David Bernstein has argued, “though it was not used to its full potential, Buchanan almost certainly prevented governments from passing far harsher segregation laws.” In fact, Bernstein wrote, “Buchanan may have saved the United States, or at least the South, from instituting South-African-style apartheid.”