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Giles v. Harris, 1903

Guiding Question: To what extent did Founding principles of liberty, equality, and justice become a reality for African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century?

  • I can interpret primary sources related to Founding principles of liberty, equality, and justice in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • I can explain how laws and policy, courts, and individuals and groups contributed to or pushed back against the quest for liberty, equality, and justice for African Americans.
  • I can create an argument using evidence from primary sources.
  • I can analyze issues in history to help find solutions to present-day challenges.

Building Context

The Fifteenth Amendment protected the right of citizens to vote in the United States. However, many states and localities passed a variety of restrictions to prevent Blacks from even registering to vote. In this case, Jackson W. Giles sued on behalf of more than 5,000 Black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, claiming that the state had violated the Fifteenth Amendment in refusing to register him to vote. The court’s 6-3 decision in Montgomery’s favor was based on the majority’s doubts about whether it had the authority to rule on the voting requirements of a state.

Giles v. Harris, 1903

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Majority Opinion (Justice Holmes)


[T]he court has as little practical power to deal with the people of the state in a body . . , Unless we are prepared to supervise the voting in that state by officers of the court, it seems to us that all that the plaintiff could get from equity would be an empty form. Apart from damages to the individual, relief from a great political wrong, if done, as alleged, by the people of a state and the state itself, must be given by them or by the legislative and political department of the government of the United States.


Dissenting Opinion (Justice Brewer)


He [Giles] alleges that he is a citizen of Alabama, entitled to vote; that he desired to vote at an election for representative in Congress; that, without registration, he could not vote, and that registration was wrongfully denied him by the defendants. That many others were similarly treated does not destroy his rights or deprive him of relief in the courts. That such relief will be given has been again and again affirmed in both national and state courts.


  1. According to Justice Holmes, why did the court not rule in Giles’s favor?
  2. How did the ruling in this case chip away at Black American’s protections under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?