On October 15, 1883—129 years ago today—the Supreme Court struck a major blow to the fight for equality when it ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, rejecting the argument that it was authorized under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Eight years earlier, in a last-ditch effort to protect the rights African Americans had gained in the decade following the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 signaled an important step in the fight for equality, stating:
Be it enacted, that all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.
The Act imposed punishments on those who violated its provisions and gave exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts to rule on cases related to the Act.
Unfortunately, this Act was rarely enforced. And then, in 1883, the cases of five African Americans who had been denied accommodations in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were consolidated into one issue for the Supreme Court to review: the Civil Rights Cases.
Eroding the progress made on civil rights in the previous ten years, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to regulate the Act. Claiming that the issues discussed in the Civil Rights Cases only constituted private wrongs, the Court held that the Amendment gave Congress the right only to enforce state action. The justices further argued that the Constitution did not prohibit discrimination, but rather only prohibited involuntary servitude.
Justice John Harlan famously dissented, arguing that “such discrimination is a badge of servitude, the imposition of which congress may prevent under its power, through appropriate legislation, to enforce the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment.”
Those who opposed the decision worried that it represented a step toward legalized segregation. They were correct: over the next eight decades African Americans saw their rights further eroded. Segregation became the rule rather than the exception in the workplace, in housing, and in public life. Not until the second half of the twentieth century would the rights so clearly stated in 1875 become the law of the land once more.
To learn more about the Civil Rights Cases, check out this page from PBS and this page from OYEZ. To read the Supreme Court’s 1883 ruling against the Civil Rights Act, click here.
To read the New York Times article printed one day after the Court’s decision, click here.
Justice John Harlan, who wrote the famous dissent, would later produce another famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.
To read the text of the four Reconstruction Era civil rights acts passed by Congress, the last of which was the Civil Rights Act of 1875, click here. For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here.
To learn more about race relations during this period, check out J. Michael Martinez’s Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow (Rowman & Littlefield 2011).
To learn more about the erosion of civil rights, check out Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor 2009).
To learn more about the history of civil rights and the Supreme Court, check out Abraham L. Davis and Barbara Luck Graham’s The Supreme Court, Race, and Civil Rights: From Marshall to Rehnquist (Sage 1995).