Civil Rights Cases

In a set of five cases consolidated in a single decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. The decision affirmed the premise that the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to prohibit discrimination only by state governments and not by private individuals or businesses.

Summary of Event

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 Civil Rights Act of 1875 proved to be the last piece of Reconstruction law passed by Congress to ensure that former slaves and their descendants would not be denied their rights as citizens. Partly as a tribute to Senator Charles Sumner, who had fought tirelessly for civil rights during his lifetime and who had died the previous year, his fellow senators approved the legislation. Sumner had held that the Thirteenth Amendment Thirteenth Amendment;and Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] , in addition to abolishing the institution of slavery, also raised former slaves to a status of legal equality. On that basis, Congress had the power to pass laws that would guarantee African Americans freedom from discriminatory treatment, whether by public authorities or by private individuals. As Congress debated the Civil Rights Bill during the early 1870’s, the most visible signs of African Americans’ legal inferiority were restrictions and segregation Segregation in public facilities. Hotels, inns, theaters, trains, and ships routinely denied accommodations to black patrons. Civil Rights Cases (1883)
African Americans;and Civil Rights cases[Civil Rights cases]
Supreme Court, U.S.;and civil rights[Civil rights]
Bradley, Joseph P.
Harlan, John Marshall
[kw]Civil Rights Cases (Oct. 15, 1883)
[kw]Cases, Civil Rights (Oct. 15, 1883)
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
African Americans;and Civil Rights cases[Civil Rights cases]
Supreme Court, U.S.;and civil rights[Civil rights]
Bradley, Joseph P.
Harlan, John Marshall
United States v. Stanley (1883)
United States v. Ryan (1883)
United States v. Nichols (1883)
United States v. Singleton (1883)
Robinson and Wife v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company (1883)
[g]United States;Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Cases[5310]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Cases[5310]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Cases[5310]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Cases[5310]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Cases[5310]
Elliott, Robert Brown
Langston, John Mercer
Sumner, Charles
[p]Sumner, Charles;and Civil Rights cases[Civil Rights cases]

Anticipating questions about the constitutionality of his proposals, Sumner tied his advocacy of free access to public facilities directly to the abolition of slavery, arguing that because one of the disabilities of slavery was the prohibition against entering public places, the end of slavery should mean freedom to enter the establishments of one’s choosing. Restrictions on that freedom based on race constituted a “badge of slavery.”

Supporters of the public accommodations law also argued that it could be sustained on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. Representative Robert Brown Elliott Elliott, Robert Brown insisted that the amendment’s equal protection clause required that states secure equality before the law for all citizens as part of their responsibility to advance the common good. He cited the Supreme Court’s position in the 1872 Slaughterhouse cases that the purpose of the Thirteenth Thirteenth Amendment;and Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] and Fourteenth Amendments was to protect African Americans from those who had formerly enslaved them.

The Republicans lost their majority in Congress in the 1874 elections. They passed the Civil Rights Act in a lame duck session in early 1875, as a last effort to secure the rights of African Americans before Congress became dominated by Democrats and pro-white southerners. The original version of the bill was drafted by African American civil rights activist John Mercer Langston Langston, John Mercer , who gave it to Sumner Sumner, Charles
[p]Sumner, Charles;and Civil Rights cases[Civil Rights cases] . As passed, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 included five sections. Section 1 provided for equal access for all Americans to public accommodations and places of amusement. Section 2 defined violations and penalties for violating the equal access provisions. Section 3 gave federal, rather than state, courts jurisdiction in civil rights cases and required that law-enforcement agencies cooperate to enforce the law. This section was an attempt to ensure that the act would be enforced and violations prosecuted even in states where local authorities were reluctant to do so. Section 4 forbade racial discrimination in federal or state juries, and section 5 provided for Supreme Court review of cases arising under the act. An additional provision extending the equal access guarantees to public education was dropped from the bill.

In the year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, neither Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes nor Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden Tilden, Samuel Jones received a majority of the electoral votes. As the outcome of the presidential election remained in doubt, a special commission was appointed to resolve the constitutional crisis. A settlement was reached that allowed Hayes to assume the presidency. This settlement included an agreement that the federal government would stop trying to enforce civil rights legislation, including the new law passed in 1875. Even so, the law remained on the books until a group of cases, known collectively as the Civil Rights Cases, came before the Supreme Court in 1883.

The challenges to the law arose from four criminal prosecutions of persons who had excluded African Americans from their hotels or theaters and a fifth case brought by a black woman who had been excluded from a white railroad car reserved for women. All five cases fell under sections 1 and 2 of the 1875 law, and the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether these provisions were constitutional under the Thirteenth Thirteenth Amendment;and Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] and Fourteenth Amendments. Could private discrimination be prohibited as one of the “badges of slavery”? Could Congress prevent discrimination by individuals on the grounds that the state was involved when it tolerated or ignored such actions by its citizens?

On October 15, 1883, Justice Joseph P. Bradley delivered the opinion of the Court. Seven justices joined his opinion; only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented. Bradley’s ruling effectively established a narrow scope for the Fourteenth Amendment, which was determined to apply only to the official actions of state governments. Congress, he maintained, did not have the power to prohibit discrimination by private individuals. Bradley asserted that such legislation was a “municipal law for the protection of private rights,” far beyond the scope of congressional authority. He considered that under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress’s power to ensure that no state deprived a citizen of equal protection of the law meant that Congress could provide relief only after a state agency had acted to deny equal protection.

Bradley’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment;and civil rights[Civil rights]
African Americans;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] left African Americans largely at the mercy of state governments, since they could appeal to Congress for relief only after a state had acted to deprive them of their civil rights. As for the acts of individuals that interfered with other persons’ enjoyment of their rights of other persons, the Court’s opinion termed such situations “simply a private wrong.” The remedy for such discrimination was to bring action in a state court. According to this ruling, private interference, even with the right to hold property, to vote, or to serve as a witness or a juror, could not be prohibited by federal law.

Bradley reasoned that federal laws could only prohibit or prevent the “denial” of rights—that is, the elimination of those rights in principle. Because a private individual did not have the power to deny rights but only to “interfere with the enjoyment of the right in a particular case,” such an individual’s actions fell outside the scope of federal power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. It remained up to each state to enforce its laws against instances of “force or fraud” that interfered with the enjoyment of civil rights, just as it was up to the state to enforce laws against any other instance of “force or fraud.”

Bradley further denied that the Thirteenth Thirteenth Amendment;and Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] Amendment had any relevance to the case. In the opinion of the Court, “mere discrimination on account of race or color” could not be considered among the badges of slavery. In abolishing slavery, the amendment was not intended to adjust the “social rights” in the community. According to Bradley’s opinion, it was time for African Americans to stop being “the special favorite of the laws” and to assume “the rank of a mere citizen.” In ruling the Civil Rights Act of 1875 Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, the Supreme Court advised African Americans that their rights would be protected in the same way as other citizens’ rights, by the state governments.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner, wrote the only dissent in the Civil Rights Cases. As he would do later in Plessy v. Ferguson, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Harlan criticized his colleagues for distorting the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment by their narrow definition of state action. He asserted that public establishments were agents of the state, as they operated under state licenses and regulations. Harlan also argued that, because race had served as a justification for slavery, racial discrimination qualified as a badge of slavery. Emancipation raised the former slaves to the status of freedom and entitled them to the same civil rights as their fellow citizens. The Thirteenth Thirteenth Amendment;and Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] Amendment, in its enforcement clause, gave Congress the power to ensure the enjoyment of those rights, including equal access. Harlan concluded that the constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War had prohibited any race or class of people from deciding which rights and privileges their fellow citizens could enjoy.


Through its narrow definition of state action and of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, the Supreme Court effectively limited the federal government’s power to outlaw racial discrimination. Rather than affirming that the federal government had the constitutional authority to ensure equal citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] for African Americans, the justices supported the principle of states’ rights, opting for a limited definition of congressional authority and deferring to the states to safeguard the welfare of their citizens.

Among those who protested the Court’s decision in the Civil Rights Cases was a group of black lawyers called the Brotherhood of Liberty. They argued that leaving the enforcement of civil rights to the states would be a disaster for African Americans. They criticized Republican federal judges as well as Republican legislators for betraying the purposes of the Reconstruction amendments out of political self-interest. Some black journalists compared the Civil Rights Cases to the Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) (1857), which had denied that any African American could ever be a U.S. citizen.

Further Reading

  • Hyman, Harold M., and William M. Wiecek. Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835-1875. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Emphasizes issues concerning the Thirteenth Amendment as a source of federal power to enforce civil rights.
  • Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of the Civil Rights Cases and of all of the Court’s other major civil rights decisions.
  • Litwack, Leon, and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Profiles of prominent African American activists.
  • Lively, Donald E. The Constitution and Race. New York: Praeger, 1992. A careful analysis of constitutional interpretation based on primary sources.
  • Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. A valuable study of the changing application and meaning of the amendment.
  • Perry, Michael J. We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines the controversies historically surrounding interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Supreme Court.

Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Reconstruction of the South

Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Hayes Becomes President

Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters

Plessy v. Ferguson

United States v. Wong Kim Ark

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