Friday, May 22, 2009

A Kentucky Historical Wart: The Day Law

The "Day Law", named for Kentucky state Representative Carl Day, prohibited desegregated schools in Kentucky. After visiting Berea College, an historically interracial, coeducational institute in Madison County, Kentucky in 1904, Day was shocked to see black and white students interacting as equals. Upon his return to Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, he introduced the legislation that would come to bear his name. The bill was quickly and overwhelmingly passed by both the Kentucky House and Senate.

In addition to prohibiting desegregated learning facilities, even at private institutions such as Berea, the law also stipulated that if an institution wanted to teach both races, they could only do so as segregated campuses at least 25 miles distant from each other. The penalty for disobeying the Day Law was a $1000 fine, plus an additional $100 per day fine until in compliance. Both students and faculty were subject to fines as well.

Berea took the matter to court in effort to have the Day Law declared unconstitutional. They believed that being a private institution that received no Kentucky state funding should exempt them from the law. They lost. Then the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled against Berea too. The Court of Appeals said that since Berea College operated in the state of Kentucky, then they were subject to Kentucky laws. The Court of Appeals also said that the Day Law was not discriminatory since whites could not attend black schools either. In a weak attempt to lessen the severity of the law, the Court of Appeals did strike out the "25 mile" clause as unreasonable.

In 1908 the case finally made it to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also upheld the law. Justice John M. Harlan, a native Kentuckian, was only one of two justices that disagreed. He stated, that the law was "cruel...and ...inconsistent...with the great principle of equality before the law" (14th Amendment). Harlan railed, "Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race that an American government, professedly based on the principles of freedom, charged with the protection of all citizens alike, can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of their voluntary meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?"

The Day Law remained in effect until it was amended by the Kentucky state legislature in 1950. The Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision would proclaim "separate but equal" educational facilities unconstitutional four years later.

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