In the early hours of October 29, 1958, 13 Chicago police officers (led by detective Frank Pape) would make a law enforcement decision that would forever change policing in America.
At 5:45 a.m. the officers invaded the home of James and Flossie Monroe and their six children. The officers forced the Monroes, who were naked and sleeping, out of their bed and into the living room at gunpoint. They then ransacked the home and arrested James Monroe, striking him in the head several times with a flashlight while calling him the N-word and “black boy”. James Monroe was also interrogated for 10 hours without being allowed to call a lawyer and without being taken before a magistrate.
The Monroes filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the thirteen police officers in the local district court, charging them in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was called the Ku Klux Klan Act at the time.
The Ku Klux Klan Act was enacted in 1871 to stop the reign of terror against abolitionists and newly freed slaves by southerners, particularly in South Carolina. Local governments had refused to take any action against hate groups (like the KKK) who were breaking into homes, disarming Black families, and committing murders. Among other things, the Act would allow the President to declare martial law and to use the military to stop these hate groups. Though the United States Supreme Court ruled this part of the Act unconstitutional in 1882, it left intact the provision prohibiting a person acting under color of state law from depriving individuals of their federal and constitutional rights. After this, the Act essentially lay dormant for 90 years and was never successfully used to redress deprivations of constitutional rights until Monroe v. Pape.
Claiming they were merely performing their duties in a potentially hazardous situation, the city of Chicago and the thirteen police officers sought a dismissal of charges. The district court did dismiss, declaring that the Ku Klux Klan Act did not provide for a private remedy for its violation. The 7th circuit agreed and affirmed the dismissal.
The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and heard oral arguments on November 8, 1960. On February 20, 1961, the Supreme Court issued in an opinion written by Justice William Douglas, ruling that the Ku Klux Klan Act did in fact provide a remedy to persons who had their federal rights violated by officers acting under color of state law. Though the Monroes’ claim against the city of Chicago was dismissed on the basis that municipalities were not persons within the meaning of the Act, their case against the individual officers was allowed to proceed. The Ku Klux Klan Act continues to permit us to file police misconduct lawsuits against officers.
Almost two decades later in the landmark case of Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, the Court reconsidered its decision with respect to municipalities, allowing civilians to sue local governments for violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com