Civil Rights Cases (Great Events from History: North American Series)
Article abstract: The U.S. Supreme Court finds the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.
Summary of Event
The 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 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, 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 in the early 1870’s, the most visible signs of African Americans’ legal inferiority were restrictions and segregation in public facilities. Hotels, inns, theaters, trains, and ships routinely denied accommodations to black patrons.
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...
(The entire section is 1531 words.)
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Civil Rights Cases (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
A landmark decision, which was a consolidation of several cases brought before the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES in 1883 that declared the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1875 (18 Stat. 336) unconstitutional and ultimately led to the enactment of state laws, such as JIM CROW LAWS, which codified what had previously been individual adherence to the practice of racial SEGREGATION. The cases were United States v. Stanley, United States v. Ryan, United States v. Nichols, and United States v. Singleton, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed by Congress in the post-Civil War era in response to the refusal of many whites to afford newly freed slaves equal treatment with whites under federal law. The act mandated that owners of public facilities, such as inns, restaurants, railroads, and other carriers, not discriminate against blacks who sought access to, or service from, them on the basis of their race. Anyone who violated the law was subject to criminal prosecution.
Scores of prosecutions ensued and six cases reached the Supreme Court. The fact patterns of the cases were comparable in that they all were...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Civil Rights Cases (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 109 U.S. 3 (1883)
United States in four cases, Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Robinson in one case.
Stanley, Ryan, Nichols, Singleton, Memphis & Charleston RR
That their civil rights had been violated under the Civil Rights Act of 1 March 1875 when various individuals and companies had denied them access to accommodations and privileges of an inn, hotel, theater, and railroad on the grounds of race.
Chief Lawyers for Appellants
Samuel F. Phillips, U.S. Solicitor General Phillips; William M. Randolph for the Robinsons
Chief Lawyers for Appellees
(None for first four cases); William Y. C. Humes, David Postern for Memphis & Charleston RR.
Justices for the Court
Joseph P. Bradley (writing for the Court), Samuel Blatchford, Stephen Johnson Field, Horace Gray, Stanley Matthews, Samuel Freeman Miller, Morrison Remick Waite, William Burnham Woods
John Marshall Harlan I
Date of Decision
15 October 1883
(The entire section is 938 words.)
Civil Rights Cases (Supreme Court Drama)
Appellants: United States in four cases, Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Robinson in one case
Appellees: Stanley, Ryan, Nichols, Singleton, Memphis & Charleston Railroad
Appellant's Claim: That their right of equal access to various publicly used facilities was violated.
Chief Lawyers for Appellants: U.S. Solicitor General Samuel F. Phillips; William M. Randolph for the Robinsons
Chief Lawyers for Appellees: William Y. C. Humes and David Postern
Justices for the Court: Samuel Blatchford, Joseph P. Bradley, Stephen Johnson Field, Horace Gray, Stanley Matthews, Samuel Freeman Miller, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, and William B. Woods.
Justices Dissenting: John Marshall Harlan I
Date of Decision: October 15, 1883
Decision: Found in favor of the appellees because the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional.
Significance: The Court ruled 8 that Congress did not have the constitutional power to enforce civil rights requirements on private individuals or businesses. The decision greatly undermined the laws passed by Congress during the Reconstruction which were designed to grant equal rights to the newly freed African American slaves.
"They raise their voices in song and dance in the streets. I wish you could see these people as they step from slavery into freedom. Families, a long time broken up, are reunited and oh! such happiness. I am glad I am here." An unknown Union officer wrote these words to his wife in 1865 at the conclusion of the American Civil War (18615) as slaves throughout the South took their first cautious steps as freed people. Yet, the celebration would be short-lived. The joy of freedom gave way to a struggle for black American's civil rights (personal rights belonging to an individual as a resident of a particular country).
The civil right's struggle of black Americans included not only such sweeping issues as voting rights but also seemingly simple everyday activities like freely choosing what inn or hotel to stay at, admission to a theater, or where to sit in a railroad car. Even early Supreme Court rulings, rather than furthering the civil rights of the former slaves, would actually delay the freedom process for at least four decades following the Civil War.
An Uncertain Freedom
The economic effects of the Civil War on the South were devastating with small farms as well as plantations destroyed. African Americans, although finally freed, were uneducated, poor, and still largely remained at the mercy of the white population.
The United States government began to rebuild the South with a process known as Reconstruction lasting from 1865 to 1877. The South was put under military occupation which provided a temporary measure of protection for the ex-slaves. Realizing the former slaves' liberty was insecure, Congress approved and the states ratified (approved) three amendments between 1865 and 1870, known as the Civil Rights or Reconstruction Amendments. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments together were meant to guarantee blacks liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights and ensure equal protection of the laws. Equal protection means that no person or persons will be denied the same protection of the laws that is enjoyed by other persons or groups.
Civil Rights Amendments
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865 just eight months after the end of the Civil War, prohibited slavery. Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment made black persons citizens and stated:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [take away] the privileges . . . of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive [take from] any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law [fair legal hearings]; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographic area] the equal protection of the laws.
The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, was designed to protect the voting rights of blacks. All three ended with a section stating that Congress could enforce the amendments by passing appropriate laws.
Public Accommodations and the Fourteenth Amendment
Opposition to ending slavery remained strong in Southern states and many whites refused to treat freed slaves equally. For example, former slaves were routinely denied the use of "public accommodations" including inns, theaters, restaurants, railroad cars, and other facilities whose services are available to the general population. These denials took away black Americans' privileges as citizens of the United States in defiance of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, Congress found it necessary to pass laws ensuring the enforcement of the Civil Rights Amendments. One such law, based on both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments, was the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The first section of the act addressed the accommodations problem by prohibiting discrimination (giving privileges to one group but not another) in public facilities.
Following passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, many cases came to courts claiming discrimination. Five reached the Supreme Court. All five were based upon the failure of blacks to be treated the same as whites. In four of the cases, the United States, representing the black Americans, was the party bringing suit against the offenders. Two cases, against individuals named Stanley and Nichols, resulted from the denial of inn or hotel accommodations to black persons. The other two cases, filed against people named Ryan and Singleton, involved denial of theater admission. Ryan, refused to seat a black person in a certain section of Maguire's theater in San Francisco. Singleton denied a black person a seat in the Grand Opera House in New York. In the fifth case, Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Robinson brought action against the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company in Tennessee. A conductor on the line refused to allow Mrs. Robinson access to the ladies' car because she was of African descent. The Supreme Court combined the cases which became known as the Civil Rights Cases. All the cases, relying on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, claimed discrimination against African Americans by private individuals who denied the black persons access to public accommodations and that these denials were yet another form of slavery.
Immediately, the Court identified the primary question in the Civil Rights Cases as whether or not the 1875 act was a constitutional law. To be constitutional a law must reflect what the U.S. Constitution and its amendment intended. If the Court found the law to be unconstitutional then none of the suits could stand. On October 15, 1883, the Court decided by an eight to one vote that neither the Thirteenth nor Fourteenth Amendment gave the United States government power to sue private persons for discrimination against black persons. Since no other basis but the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments were used to justify the law, the Court ruled the first and second sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and void (no longer valid). The black Americans lost in all five cases.
Badge of Slavery
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Joseph Bradley commented the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited discriminatory actions by a state but not discrimination by private individuals. Therefore, if private business owners refused to serve or accommodate African Americans, Congress could not force them to do so. Bradley wrote, "Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment." The Court also observed, "It [the Fourteenth Amendment] does not authorize Congress to create a code of municipal [local] law for the regulation of private rights."
Bradley also rejected the law based on the Thirteenth Amendment. Bradley stated the Thirteenth Amendment clearly allowed Congress "to enact all necessary and proper laws for the . . . prevention of slavery," but he refused to view racial discrimination as a "badge of slavery." Agreeing with the defense he observed,
Such an act of refusal has nothing to do with slavery or involuntary servitude. . . It would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see to make as to the guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car, or admit to his concert or theater.
The Lone Dissenter
Justice John Marshall Harlan I, a former slave owner, was the only justice to disagree with the majority. In a famous dissent, he argued that the spirit of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments was to guarantee equal rights to African Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been passed with that intent in mind. Harlan pointed out that inns, theaters, and transportation vehicles, even though privately owned, are generally available to the public. Discrimination against African Americans in these accommodations was indeed a "badge of slavery." The amendments gave Congress the authority to outlaw all "badges and incidents" of slavery be they state or private actions.
Over the next eighty years the Civil Rights Cases' decision severely limited the federal government's power to guarantee the civil rights of black Americans. Following the decision, several northern and western states enacted their own bans on discriminatory practices in public places but other states, especially Southern states, did the opposite. They began writing racial discrimination and segregation (separation of groups by race) policies into laws that became known as Jim Crow laws. The laws segregated blacks from whites in hotels, theaters, and public transportation and persisted for many decades. Not until 1964 did Congress, referring to Justice Harlan's dissent, pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of the modern era. One of its sections prohibited discrimination in public accommodations. The 1964 act's constitutionality was quickly upheld by the Supreme Court's decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States thus reversing the earlier ruling in Civil Rights Cases.
Suggestions for further reading
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The African American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer. A Pictorial History of the Negro in America. Third Revised Edition. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968.
Liston, Robert. Slavery in America: The Heritage of Slavery. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972.
Medearis, Angela Shelf. Come This Far to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Atheneum, 1993.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro, 1865916. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words, 1619983. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1984.
Myers, Walter D. Now is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom. New York: HarperTrophy, 1991.
Time-Life Books. African Americans Voices of Triumph: Perseverance. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993.