On April 28, 1941, Illinois Congressman Arthur Mitchell argued to the Supreme Court that African Americans were entitled to railroad accommodations equal to white passengers.
Born to former slaves in Alabama in 1883, Mitchell attended the Tuskegee Institute and worked his way through school as a farmer and in the office of Booker T. Washington. He attended law school at Columbia University and Harvard before moving to Chicago, where he worked as a lawyer and got into politics. He was elected to Congress in 1934 as the nation’s first African American Democratic congressman. Throughout his four terms, he was the only African American in Congress.
In 1937, Mitchell purchased first-class railroad accommodations from Chicago to Hot Springs, Arkansas. When the train crossed into Arkansas, the conductor told Mitchell to move to the “colored” car. Mitchell refused. The conductor cursed at him, used racial slurs and threatened him with arrest. Mitchell finally complied and found the “colored” car to be filthy, foul-smelling and poorly ventilated, with only one of the three toilets still working. It was also used as the smoking car for both Blacks and whites.
When Mitchell returned to Chicago, he filed suit against the railroads for discrimination, which violated the Interstate Commerce Act. After multiple courts rejected the case, it made its way to the Supreme Court, where Mitchell argued the case himself. On April 28, 1941, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor, confirming that the Interstate Commerce Act superseded state segregation laws and could enforce equal accommodations for African Americans.
Although segregation on interstate trains did not end until 1955, Mitchell called his case a “step in the destruction of Mr. Jim Crow himself.”
Although Mitchell’s victory was a big win for civil rights, his crusade against racial injustice angered the white political establishment in Chicago that had helped him into office. He knew he could not keep his seat without their support, so he did not seek re-election in 1942. He retired to Virginia and worked as a farmer and activist until his death in 1968.