background of the case
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Andrew Hawkins stepped out of his home and into flood waters mixed with raw sewage. Disgusted by the putrid smell and worried about the health effects on his children he took a walk around the town to assess the greater situation. He was struck by extreme differences in neighborhoods (Black vs. White) and what he saw was deplorable living conditions in the black neighborhoods and modernized upgraded living conditions in the white neighborhoods. The Black citizens of Shaw were tired of the severely disparate living conditions and the “hard-core neglect” of municipal services (e.g., no access to sewer mains, street lighting, unpaved roads, etc.) in the black neighborhoods by the city council.
Instead of engaging in his usual routine of filing a complaint with City Hall, he wrote a letter to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, which began the initial filing of the lawsuit, “Hawkins vs. Town of Shaw.” This case over the course of several years (1969, 1971, and 1972) reached the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit 1972. In an astounding decision, The United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit overturned the lower court's decision citing that in their judgment the facts were:
“...squarely and certainly support the reasonable and logical inference that there was here neglect involving clear overtones of racial discrimination in the administration of governmental affairs of the town of Shaw resulting in the same evils which characterize an intentional and purposeful disregard of the principle of equal protection of the laws.”
This was a watershed moment for the equal rights movement and it resonated on a national level. The success of this lawsuit had an influence on future court cases nationwide and supported the idea that a municipality could be held accountable for systemic negligence if intentionality could be proved.