Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)

A U.S. Supreme Court case striking down as unconstitutional the last of the Reconstruction-era acts designed to protect against discrimination based on race, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 sought to outlaw racial discrimination on both public and private acts.

The decision focused on five different instances in which whites denied blacks admission to various venues like inns, theaters, and a railroad car. Through a narrow interpretation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, an eight-justice majority found that Congress overstepped its constitutional authority in passing the 1875 act. In their attempt to bar discrimination in public accommodations, Congress used the Civil War amendments to affect both public and private acts of inequality based on race. However, the justices interpreted the amendments narrowly as prohibitions against state governments, and not against private individuals who operated public inns, hotels, and other public accommodations. The act of refusing individuals the right to stay at a private inn, due to a person’s race, did not amount to ‘‘a badge or incident of slavery,’’ Justice Bradley wrote, echoing a legal theme that would serve as the foundation for Jim Crow laws in a segregated South.

In his dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Southerner and former slaveholder, attacked the narrow interpretation of the Civil War amendments and instead argued that Congress had the broad power to protect the rights of blacks against all ‘‘badges of slavery.’’ This case, along with Plessy v. Ferguson, effectively removed the federal government from civil rights enforcement for more than eighty years, allowing states to impose segregation and Jim Crow laws that discriminated on the basis of race.

J. MICHAEL BITZER

References and Future Reading

  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

See also Equal Protection of Law (XIV)

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