Vinson presided over the Supreme Court during the early years of the Cold War and a new era in racial equality. His opinions, though few, defended the federal government’s national security actions and set the stage for the civil rights revolution.
Vinson began his public career as a city attorney. In 1923 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat and served five uneventful years in a Republican-controlled House. Defeated in 1928, largely because he supported Al Smith for the presidency, he was reelected in 1930. With the coming of the New Deal, Vinson played a leading role in shaping the Social Security Act (1935) and supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan. In 1938 Roosevelt rewarded Vinson by appointing him to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and five years later asked him to become the director of the Office of Economic Stabilization and then director of War Mobilization and Reconversion. In 1945 President Harry S Truman chose Vinson to be secretary of the treasury. After Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone died, Truman named Vinson the thirteenth chief justice, a position he held from June 24, 1946, until September 8, 1953, when he died of a massive heart attack.
Fred M. Vinson
Truman had hoped that Vinson would be able to lead the divided Court, but he had only limited success because he had to work with strong personalities such as Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas, and he did not have the intellectual skills to guide and influence his colleagues as they struggled with constitutional issues raised by the Cold War and the emerging Civil Rights movement. Vinson allowed Frankfurter and Black to define and lead the debate over the incorporation to the states of the Bill of Rights, and though he was deeply concerned about questions of national security and racial equality, he wrote relatively few majority opinions.
During Vinson’s tenure, the Cold War
Vinson’s commitment to a strong federal government included a vigorous conception of the presidency, a view reflected in his dissent in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer
The Court took decisive action against racial discrimination in education, housing, transportation, criminal justice, voting rights, and labor relations. A moderate on race relations, Vinson made his distinctive contribution to the struggle for racial equality when he wrote unanimous opinions for the Court in three major cases. In Shelley v. Kraemer
Immediately after these decisions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People initiated five lawsuits involving segregated public elementary and secondary schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. In 1952 the Court heard oral arguments in all five, now known by the title of the Kansas case: Brown v. Board of Education
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Belknap, Michal R. The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004. Pritchett, C. Herman. Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. Rudko, Frances. Truman’s Court: A Study in Judicial Restraint. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1988. St. Clair, James E. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Urofsky, Melvin. Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1940-1953. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
American Communications Association v. Douds
Brown v. Board of Education
Clear and present danger test
Dennis v. United States
Equal protection clause
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Separate but equal doctrine
Shelley v. Kraemer
Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer