Remembering Civil Rights Lawyer Samuel Carter McMorris and his Fight Against Unjust Drug Laws & Police Brutality

Editor’s Note: Today’s post in honor of Black History Month comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

Samuel Carter McMorris in the Makio, Ohio State University’s yearbook, in 1944.

In 1962, the United States Supreme Court struck down California’s “narcotics addict” law in the case Robinson v. California. Samuel Carter McMorris, the lawyer who argued and won the case, was a fierce criminal defense lawyer for the Black community in Los Angeles during a tumultuous era. Robinson was the second of two criminal cases McMorris successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, both of them at his own expense on behalf of indigent clients. Yet McMorris has been lost to history, left without so much as a Wikipedia page.

As McMorris knew, abuse was inherent in California’s narcotics addict law. A quarter of drug arrests in Los Angeles during the 1950s and early 1960s were solely for the crime of addiction, a charge that did not even require the physical presence of drugs themselves. The testimony of an officer that he had observed injection marks on the arm of a suspect was ordinarily enough evidence for a conviction. Police freely and frequently demanded that citizens roll up their sleeves and expose the insides of their arms so officers could inspect for needle marks. This “evidence” was so conclusive in court that suspects in custody sometimes disfigured themselves by burning the area with lit cigarettes. McMorris’s legal activism helped overturn the criminalization of addiction and this type of invasive drug enforcement.

Early Life

McMorris was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920. His father, Arthur, was a policeman, and his mother, Marie, was a homemaker; Samuel had four younger sisters. When he graduated from East High School in 1937, his class named him both “most industrious” and “most conscientious.” He worked as a traveling salesman, served in the Army, then attended Ohio State University, where he attained a law degree in 1950. 

Pictured in 1950 with the staff of the Ohio State Law Journal, Samuel Carter McMorris was the first Black student to serve in that role.

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Drugstores and the Color Line: Remembering Pharmacies as Sites of the Civil Rights Movement

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Points posts during February in honor of Black History Month. Today’s article comes from managing editor Greg Bond, the Assistant Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy and the Senior Editor of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals.

Oklahoma City Katz Drug Store Sit-in
Seven-year-old Ayanna Najuma looks at the camera during a 1958 NAACP Youth Council sit-in at the segregated lunch counter of Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. Katz integrated its counter after two days of protests. Image courtesy of the Melton Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

On August 6, 1894, Abraham D. Cecil, an African American painter and interior decorator from Bloomington, Illinois, visited the drugstore of Hamer H. Green and ordered a glass of cherry phosphate soda. Green, the former President of the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy, drew the color line and refused to serve his African American customer.

Cecil promptly sued Green for violating his civil rights. In a decision eventually upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court, however, state courts ruled that a drugstore soda fountain was “private… [and] exclusive” and not a “public accommodation.” The courts thus affirmed the defendant’s right to refuse service to African Americans (Cecil v. Green, 69 Ill. App. 61l; Cecil v. Green, 161 Ill. 265).

Abraham Cecil was not alone. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, drugstores and pharmacies were frequently sites of civil rights activism as African Americans protested the color line and fought against unequal treatment. Particularly as drugstore soda fountains and lunch counters became common throughout the country, African Americans repeatedly turned to the courts or engaged in direct actions like sit-ins, pickets, and boycotts to challenge Jim Crow in the drugstore.

Although scholars have rightly examined in detail the pivotal role of the broader sit-in movement and of protests at department stores, the importance of drugstores and pharmacies as sites of civil rights protest and activism has been much less studied. Like department stores, pharmacies peddled a wide array of commercial goods and also served the public at their ubiquitous soda fountains and lunch counters. Unlike department stores, though, drugstores also filled prescriptions, sold medicines, and provided important public health information.

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