Iowa: Leader in Civil Rights and Equality
How does Iowa demonstrate, "Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain?"
Iowa has a proud record of laws and court decisions that have established precedents that expanded civil rights and equality before they were adopted on the national level. The first case heard by the Iowa Supreme Court, the Case of Ralph in 1839, declared that a slave who came to the state legally could not be forced to return to his or her master because Iowa did not allow slavery. That came a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that slaves were property, could be taken anywhere and had no rights. It took the Civil War to end the question of slavery. After Iowa desegregated schools in 1868, it took the U.S. Supreme Court almost 90 years to reach the same conclusion in Brown v. Board of Education.
Iowa and Expanding Civil Rights
Iowa was also one of the first states to grant African-American men the right to vote. In 1868, Iowa voters (all white men at the time) approved a constitutional amendment that removed the word "white" as a qualification for voting. While Iowa-born and educated Carrie Chapman Catt became the leader of the national organization promoting women’s suffrage, Iowa was not in the forefront of states granting that right. Iowa voters, still all male, defeated an amendment is 1916 to extend voting rights to women, but the Iowa legislature approved a national Constitutional amendment for women's suffrage opening the 1920 elections to both sexes. Discrimination based on sex or gender orientation rose to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. Iowa voters twice defeated an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) designed to prevent discrimination against women. In the referenda of 1980 and 1992, opponents helped to defeat the ERA proposal by arguing that it would advance gay rights when laws could not discriminate based on sex. In 2009, however, Iowa became the third state to grant same-sex couples the right to marriage by a ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court.
Separate and Unequal
However, it is important to look beyond the laws themselves to the way they were implemented — or not — in daily life. In Iowa's territory and early statehood days, there were laws that placed severe restrictions on African Americans wanting to move into the state or live here. They had to post bonds to insure that they would not become public charges and were denied basic rights guaranteed to whites, like the right to serve on juries. While Iowa law prohibited public accommodations like trains, buses, restaurants, and theaters from discriminating on the basis of race, in practice African Americans often faced barriers. Many schools prohibited African Americans from playing on sports teams. Some communities even had "sunset laws" that required African Americans to leave town by evening. African-American students at the state universities were denied housing in school dorms until African-American veterans returning from World War II demanded and overturned that restriction. Edna Griffin led a 1948 protest against Katz Drug Store in Des Moines when it refused to serve her ice cream at its lunch counter. When she sued based on Iowa law, she won but was awarded $1. As late as the 1960s, some theaters required African Americans to sit in the balcony and some restaurants refused to serve African-American customers.
In other ways, however, Iowa has been a leader as an open and inclusive society. In the 1970s, Governor Robert Ray inaugurated a resettlement program for Vietnamese and Laotian refugees displaced by the civil wars in those countries. When Ray traveled to Southeast Asia and viewed the horrible conditions in refugee camps, he made a commitment to organize resources to help them establish new lives in Iowa. He mobilized churches and welfare groups to help refugees find housing, learn English and get jobs. Today, many of the refugees and their children have distinguished themselves in their chosen professions.
One must consider both the laws that are on the books and the ways that they are implemented when evaluating Iowa’s record. Attitudes toward race, gender and other factors have changed over the years, and Iowa has reflected those changes. Still, the long-term trend is toward eliminating barriers toward the full participation of all. Both the national creed in the Declaration of Independence that all "are created equal" and Iowa's motto that "our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain" have been powerful ideals by which we work toward creating a just society.
How do events from Iowa's history show a pattern of trailblazing for civil rights and equality on a national level?
- Letter by Iowa State Football Player Jack Trice Written from the Curtis Hotel, October 5, 1923 (Document)
- C.L. Brewers' Letter Barring Football Player Jack Trice from Playing at the University of Missouri, October 8, 1923 (Document)
- Letter from S.W. Beyer to C.L. Brewer and the University of Missouri about Iowa State's Jack Trice, October 10, 1923 (Document)
- Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, October 1950 (Image)
- National Register of Historic Places Application for the Moslem Temple, 1996 (Document)
- IPTV's "World War II Veteran: Mary Adams," 2008 (Video)
- "The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 2010 (Document)
How has Iowa’s state government changed or enforced state law to support civil rights and equality?
- Anti-Miscegenation Laws in Iowa, between 1839 and 1959 (Document)
- "State v. Amana Society: 1906," 2018 (Document)
In what ways has Iowa modeled upholding civil rights and equality for the national stage?
- Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839 (Document)
- Alexander Clark's Petition to Allow Immigration of "Free Negroes" into Iowa, 1855 (Document)
- U.S. Supreme Court Majority Opinion on Dred Scott v. John Sanford Case, March 6, 1857 (Document)
- "Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 2008 (Document)
- IPTV's "Alexander Clark and the First Successful School Desegregation Case in the United States," 2012 (Video)
Letter by Iowa State Football Player Jack Trice Written from the Curtis Hotel, October 5, 1923
C.L. Brewers' Letter Barring Football Player Jack Trice from Playing at the University of Missouri, October 8, 1923
Letter from S.W. Beyer to C.L. Brewer and the University of Missouri about Iowa State's Jack Trice, October 10, 1923
Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, October 1950
National Register of Historic Places Application for the Moslem Temple, 1996
IPTV's "World War II Veteran: Mary Adams," 2008
- Video resource
"The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 2010
Anti-Miscegenation Laws in Iowa, between 1839 and 1959
"State v. Amana Society: 1906," 2018
Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839
Alexander Clark’s Petition to Allow Migration of "Free Negroes" into Iowa, 1855
Varnum v. Brien U.S. Supreme Court Decision, April 3, 2009
U.S. Supreme Court Majority Opinion on Dred Scott v. John Sanford Case, March 6, 1857
Kramer v. Kramer Iowa Supreme Court Decision, October 15, 1980
“Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 2008
IPTV's "Alexander Clark and the First Successful School Desegregation Case in the United States," 2012
- Varnum v. Brien
This document is the amicus brief filed in Varnum v. Brien, an Iowa Supreme Court Case that led to the unanimous decision by the Court that the state's limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional. Because of this court case, Iowa became the third state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
- IPTV's "Lost in History: Alexander Clark" Video
This resource was created by Iowa Public Television and it tells the story of Iowa civil rights leader Alexander Clark. The video also highlights the effort being made in the past decade to bring Clark's story back to the forefront of Iowa's history in civil rights.
- IPTV's "Ralph Montgomery:"
This webpage from Iowa Public Television summarizes the story of of the court case Ralph v. Montgomery. Ralph was born into slavery in Missouri, was able to make an agreement to work for his freedom in Iowa. When his former slave owner attempted to apprehend him in Iowa for not paying for his freedom the agreed among, the Iowa Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Ralph's favor that he was a free man.
- IPTV's "Alexander Clark and an African-American’s Fight for Civil Rights:"
This online webpage about Alexander Clark for Iowa Public Television includes multiple videos about one of Iowa's most prominent civil rights leaders.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (6th-12th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for students 6th through 12th grade.
- SS.6.21. Explain how and why perspective of people have changed throughout different historical eras.
- SS.7.25. Explain how and why perspectives on various contemporary issues have hanged over time.
- SS.8.22. Explain how and why prevailing social, cultural, and political perspectives changed during early American history.
- SS.Soc.9-12.15. Distinguish patterns and causes of stratification that lead to social inequalities, and their impact on both individuals and groups.
- SS.Soc.9-12.16. Examine and evaluate reactions to social inequalities, including conflict, and propose alternative responses.
- SS.Gov.9-12.24. Analyze how people use and challenge public policies through formal and informal means with attention to important judicial processes and landmark court cases.
- SS.Gov.9-12.28. Identify local and state issues in Iowa and evaluate formal or informal courses of action used to affect policy.
- SS.US.9-12.14. Evaluate the impact of gender roles on economic, political, and social life in the U.S.
- SS.US.9-12.15. Assess the impact of individuals and reform movements on changes to civil rights and liberties.
- SS.US.9-12.25. Analyze how regional, racial, ethnic, and gender perspectives influenced American history and culture.
- SS.US.9-12.27. Evaluate Iowans or groups of Iowans who have influenced U.S. History.