In part of my work, I get to discuss whether criticizing some southern blacks for their meekness in the 1930s was a smart way to empower them to resist state-sponsored oppression. In the other, I get to analyze the Intent Doctrine—the requirement that claimants asserting that they have been denied equal protection must prove intent to discriminate.
Basically every scholar who has written anything on intent and equal protection repeats the same line: The Supreme Court announced the Intent Doctrine in Washington v. Davis, a 1976 case concerning black police officers suing the nation’s capital for allegedly discriminatory hiring practices.
But tracing the Intent Doctrine back to Davis is historically wrong.
The Intent Doctrine should be traced back to Charley Smith v. Mississippi, 162 U.S. 592 (1896). On May 14, 1894, Charley Smith, black, shot Wiley Nesby “at a country dance.” Smith was subsequently indicted and convicted of murder by all-white juries. Smith argued that the state of Mississippi, as it almost certainly did, excluded blacks from serving on his jury. Justice Harlan, authoring the majority opinion, insisted, however, that because Smith offered no competent evidence proving a discriminatory purpose, his conviction was upheld.
So, the Intent Doctrine was actually instituted in 1896. The same year Plessy was decided. It was a terrible year for the Equal Protection Clause.