• Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ruling that key provisions in a federal civil rights law were unconstitutional, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to state action only and that Congress lacked authority to prohibit discrimination by private individuals.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, or privately owned businesses such as hotels, places of entertainment, and railroad cars. Five cases arising under the act were consolidated for argument before the Supreme Court. Speaking for an 8-1 majority, Justice Joseph P. BradleyBradley, Joseph P.;Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that Congress could forbid only abridgment of civil rights by state government officials. Individual citizens, therefore, must look to state governments for protection against discrimination by privately owned businesses. Looking at the Thirteenth Amendment, Bradley conceded that Congress had the power to obliterate the badges and incidents of slavery, but he argued that elimination of these badges and incidents did not guarantee access to private businesses. Free blacks in the North had often faced private acts of discrimination, but they were still free citizens.Discrimination, race;Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases]State action;Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases]

In a vigorous dissent, Justice John Marshall HarlanHarlan, John Marshall;Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] wrote that the majority was using a “narrow and artificial” interpretation of the Constitution. He emphasized that inequality in civil rights was one of the badges and incidents of slavery that Congress might forbid under the Thirteenth Amendment. Seventy-nine years later, the Court reversed the majority’s decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States[case]Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States[Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States] (1964), relying on congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce. The Court accepted much of Harlan’s broad interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.[case]Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.[Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.]. (1968).

Civil Rights Acts

Equal protection clause

Fourteenth Amendment

Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States

Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.

Moose Lodge v. Irvis

Private discrimination

Race and discrimination

State action

Thirteenth Amendment

Categories: History