The federal courts issued two main decisions in the late 1800s that that helped to strip blacks of their civil rights. These were the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson from 1896. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. The act had prohibited discrimination in public places like theaters and restaurants. The Court ruled that the 14th Amendment only prohibited states from discriminating on the basis of race. Since the theaters and restaurants were not owned by the state, discrimination by their owners was not a state action. The Constitution, in this view, did not allow the federal government to tell individuals that they could not discriminate. Plessy ruled that the policy of separate but equal in public accommodations was legal, thus ensuring that the system of segregation that arose in the South would be allowed to continue.
State governments took away blacks’ civil rights by creating laws to enforce segregation. They also took away blacks’ voting rights through a variety of methods. Among these methods were:
- Literacy tests. Many poor blacks were illiterate and could be prevented from voting in this way. Government officials could also make extremely difficult “literacy” tests and fail even literate blacks arbitrarily.
- Poll taxes. By making people pay a tax in order to vote, the state governments could prevent poor blacks from voting.
- Restrictions on registering. States could set up their process of voter registration in such a way as to make it very difficult for blacks to get registered.
These are the main ways in which federal courts and state governments stripped African Americans of their civil and political rights in the late 19th century.