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Content: Supreme Court Cases
Prior to this lesson, students discussed three Supreme Court cases that defined the rights of African Americans over time. The Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) ruling declared that African Americans were not considered citizens under the U.S. Constitution and therefore could not sue for their freedom in federal court. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) established the doctrine of "separate but equal" and upheld the constitutionality of public school segregation. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) declared that "separate" is inherently "unequal," thereby ending the segregation of public schools. Each of these cases provided students with background about the influence of the Court on the lives of citizens -- preparing them for the re-enactment of the Amistad case.
The Amistad story begins in Sierra Leone, where slave hunters capture 53 Africans. The Africans are taken to Cuba and sold as slaves to Spanish planters in violation of international law. Put aboard the Amistad for transport from Cuba to a Caribbean plantation, Cinque and other Africans take control of the ship on July 1, 1839, and kill the ship's captain and cook. The rest of the Spanish crew are spared and ordered to sail the ship back to Africa. As the ship meanders and supplies run low, it is seized on August 24, 1839, off the coast of Long Island by the U.S. brig Washington. Spain demands the extradition of the Africans to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder, but the incident catches the attention of abolitionists like Roger S. Ballwin, who becomes the defense lawyer for the Africans. The Spanish planters are freed, but the Africans are held in a Connecticut jail as "property" and charged with murder. A lower court clears the Africans on the grounds that the crimes occurred in Spanish territory, where slavery was illegal, but the question remains what to do with the Amistad and the Africans.
The matter is referred to U.S. District Court, where the judge rules that the Africans are not slaves and should be released. However, the judge decides that the captain of the Washington should receive one-third of the value of the Amistad and its cargo under the salvage law. President Martin Van Buren's attorneys appeal the district court decision. The case is sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Africans continue to be defended by abolitionists and now by former president John Quincy Adams. The Supreme Court decides that the Africans' actions on the Amistad were based on the "ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice," and releases them as free people. After their release, some of the Africans remain in the United States while others return to their homeland.
Teaching Strategy: Mock Trial
In the course of preparing and conducting a mock trial, students study the facts of the case, prepare opening statements, present evidence, cite relevant laws and information, examine and cross-examine witnesses, conduct redirect examination, present closing arguments, arrive at a verdict, and state the reasoning behind the decision. Students are asked to summarize the facts, reflect on their roles, relate the experience to other course content and broader issues, and compare the re-enactment to the real trial.
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