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Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875


The civil rights acts of 1866 and 1875 were passed by the U.S. Congress in an effort to make full citizens of and guarantee the rights of the freed slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) had abolished slavery throughout the nation, and Congress was faced with how to enfranchise this population. Both pieces of legislation proved to be controversial.

Early in 1866 Congress approved an act which stated that states could not infringe on the rights of their citizens. But President Andrew Johnson (180875) vetoed it. When the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Johnson, then a senator from Tennessee, remained in Washington, D.C.; he believed the act of secession was unconstitutional. When President Abraham Lincoln (186165) ran for a second term in 1864, he chose the southern Democrat as his running mate in an effort to heal the nation's wounds. Having won the election, Lincoln had just begun his second term when he was assassinated (April 1865); Johnson succeeded him in office. When the Civil Rights Act arrived on his desk, Johnson refused to sign it; he had always been a firm believer in the rights of states to regulate their own affairs. For the first time in history, Congress mustered enough votes to overturn a presidential veto and enacted the law anyway. It was the first of numerous veto overturns that came during the years of Reconstruction (186577), as Congress and the president squared off over how to restore the Union.

In June 1866 Congress proposed the Fourteenth amendment, which gave citizenship to all African Americans and guaranteed that all laws (both federal and state) applied equally to African Americans and whites. Congress further required that no southern state could be readmitted to the Union (at the time, none had been readmitted) without first ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment was ratified in 1868 replacing the earlier, disputed legislation.

The Act of 1875, passed by Congress on March 1 of that year, aimed to protect all citizens from discrimination in places of public accommodation. In part it stated 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 [transportation] on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement . . . and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color." Eight years later, the legislation was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that Congress does not have the authority to regulate the prevalent social mores of any state. The ground covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was later covered anew by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on a person's color, race, national origin, religion, or sex.

See also: Thirteenth Amendment, Fifteenth Amendment

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