Civil Rights Act of 1875 Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last, and arguably the most progressive, major piece of civil rights legislation in the Reconstruction era. It was drafted in 1870 by Charles Sumner, a Republican senator from Massachusetts. Sumner, who had been an outspoken abolitionist since before the Civil War, was considered by many to represent the most radical element of the Republican Party of his day.

Summary Overview

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last, and arguably the most progressive, major piece of civil rights legislation in the Reconstruction era. It was drafted in 1870 by Charles Sumner, a Republican senator from Massachusetts. Sumner, who had been an outspoken abolitionist since before the Civil War, was considered by many to represent the most radical element of the Republican Party of his day.

The bill that Sumner initially proposed forbade racial discrimination in all forms of public accommodation licensed by state or federal governments, including transportation, hotels, theaters, schools, and cemeteries. It also criminalized the exclusion of African American citizens from jury duty. After intense debates and delays because of the 1874 elections, a modified version of the bill was signed into law by second-term president Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was poorly enforced, challenged by state and local governments, and ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.

Defining Moment

When the American Civil War officially ended on May 10, 1865, the United States was in chaos. More than six hundred thousand Americans had died in what remains the most destructive military conflict in US history. President Abraham Lincoln had just been assassinated by a pro-Southern activist, and the freshly defeated South was in a state of political turmoil.

Many politicians wanted to reinstate the Southern states' rights to govern themselves. Others argued that these states had given up their right to exist when they seceded from the Union and should be treated as conquered territories. This ideological debate was between Democrats, who championed a rapid return to the prewar order, and Republicans, who insisted that the rebellious states should not immediately be given back their prewar political rights.

Lincoln, a Republican, and his successors, Democrat Andrew Johnson and then Republican Grant, made the process of reintegrating the nation, which was dubbed Reconstruction, a top priority of their presidencies. All three leaders emphasized the need for a moderate approach to allowing the states of the former Confederacy back into the Union. This moderate position angered politicians on the two extremes of the debate.

The controversy about how Reconstruction should take place was made more complicated by the issue of how to deal with the collapse of the largest slave system in the world. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, officially ended slavery in the United States. In so doing, it created approximately four million new citizens. These new African American citizens were concentrated in the South of the country, in the states of the former Confederacy, where they were viewed with suspicion and fear by the majority white population.

In every Southern state, local governments suppressed the rights bestowed on African Americans by the Thirteenth Amendment. Local ordinances restricting the freedom of African Americans, the so-called Black Codes, sprang up all throughout the former Confederacy. Pro-Confederate paramilitary groups, such as the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, used terrorist tactics against African Americans who tried to assert their rights, as well as white citizens who supported the Republican Party.

In the decade after the Civil War, the federal government took a series of steps aimed at protecting the rights of free African Americans. Congress overcame a veto by President Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which made all persons within the territory of the United States American citizens unless they were subjects of other nations or members of American Indian tribes. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, reinforced the legal status of freed slaves as American citizens and affirmed their right to vote in elections. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in early 1870, further enforced the right of all adult male citizens to vote, regardless of race or previous condition of servitude. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was a bold further step in asserting the equal rights of African Americans, attempting to undo the system of enforced racial segregation that had developed in the postwar South.

Author Biography

Charles Sumner was born to a modestly middle-class Boston family on January 6, 1811. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1833 and began practicing law in Boston. Sumner spent 1837 to 1840 in Europe, studying different legal systems. When he returned to Boston, he was a committed abolitionist.

After working as a lawyer and lecturer on law in Boston, Sumner entered political life. He was a founding member of the Free Soil Party, which was briefly an important antislavery force in Northern politics. He was elected to the Senate as a Free Soiler in 1851 and later joined the newly formed Republican Party.

On May 19, 1856, Sumner delivered a speech called the “Crime against Kansas,” in which he railed against proslavery activism in the state and personally insulted Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. On May 22, Butler's cousin, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, assaulted Sumner with a cane in Senate chambers, beating him into unconsciousness.

Brooks claimed to be acting to defend his family's honor. He became a hero among proslavery Southerners. On the other side, sympathy for Sumner, who spent three years recovering from spinal and brain injuries, rallied many moderate Northerners to the abolitionist cause.

Until his death from a heart attack on March 11, 1874, Sumner was outspoken about the need for civil rights reform in the United States. He is remembered for his work against slavery and as an advocate for Radical Reconstruction, the political philosophy that the defeated Confederate states should have to make major changes in order to rejoin the Union.

Document Analysis

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was arguably the most aggressive piece of civil rights legislation created during the Reconstruction era. It began by making assertions that would have immediately aroused anger and suspicion among many in the vanquished South. In its first paragraph, the legislation says that “it is essential to just government we recognize the equality of all men before the law,” and that government exists to “mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political.” Such an introduction was certain to generate controversy, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was bitterly contested until it was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883.

In its second paragraph, the legislation becomes more specific. It says that all people within the jurisdiction of US law should have “full and equal enjoyment” of various forms of accommodation. It then specifies that it seeks to expand access to inns, modes of transportation, and places of amusement to all citizens, regardless of race or former slave status. This was a direct affront to the Black Codes springing up throughout the South, which were chiefly concerned with enforcing racial segregation. Many Southerners of the day were shocked that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 stipulated that African Americans were to have the right to mix with whites in theaters and inns and on trains and ships.

The law was serious about curtailing unequal access to accommodations, establishing stiff financial penalties for violators. It states that those individuals discriminated against were to be compensated up to $500. Those who denied access to protected forms of accommodation were to be charged with a misdemeanor crime, fined $500 to $1,000, or face thirty days to one year in prison. As $500 in 1875 was roughly equivalent to more than $10,000 in the early twenty-first century, the financial penalties for violators of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the compensation due to victims of such discrimination were quite serious. The other major achievement of the law was the stipulation that all adult men should have the right to sit on juries, regardless of race or former servitude. The law imposes even steeper fines on violators of this provision, up to $5,000.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 also contained instructions for how the law should be handled by the courts, stating that federal district and circuit courts should try violations of its provisions. This was to circumvent local or state courts, which the law's drafters considered unlikely to be fair venues for cases involving racial discrimination.

Essential Themes

Many historians consider the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be the boldest piece of legislation passed during the Reconstruction period. This interpretation is based in the fact that the law sought to eliminate segregation in a variety of day-to-day settings, in direct conflict with the various Black Codes passed throughout the South in the years after the Civil War. Ultimately, however, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 proved to be too far-reaching for its time.

There were a handful of cases prosecuted under the law. These included a few cases of innkeepers refusing rooms to African Americans in New York and San Francisco and another, in which a woman was refused a seat on a train because of her race. However, the law's effects fell far short of guaranteeing the reforms its Radical Republican supporters envisioned. The protections it outlined proved difficult to enforce, largely because few African American victims of discrimination had the resources or opportunities to pursue their cases in the federal court system.

By the time the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed, it had lost much of its support from government officials. Its firebrand author, Sumner, died the year before it became law. The drive for Radical Reconstruction had slowed considerably as the former Confederate states were commercially and socially reintegrated into the Union.

In a series of decisions in 1883, known collectively as the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court struck down most of the points of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that dealt with equal access to accommodation. Interestingly, the Supreme Court of 1883 was dominated by Republican-appointed judges and might, therefore, have been expected to back aggressive civil rights reform. However, many of these judges came to feel that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 went beyond the intended powers of the federal government in its attempt to stop discrimination by private rather than just governmental entities. Justice Joseph Bradley summed up his opposition by stating that the law was in fact unfair in giving extra protections to African Americans, and it risked making them “the special favorites of the law” rather than equal citizens.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cimbala, Paul and Randall Miller. The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America's Continuing Civil War. New York: Fordham UP, 2010. Print.
  • Ferrell, Claudine. Reconstruction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
  • Lowery, Charles and John Marszalek. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights. New York: Greenwood, 1992. Print.
  • Pohlmann, Marcus and Linda Whisenhunt. Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Civil Rights. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. Print.
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