Civil Rights Cases 1883

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Civil Rights Cases 1883

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 8–1 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.

"T hey 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 (1861–65) 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.

Whites Only

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.

Questioning Constitutionality

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.


F ollowing a series of Supreme Court decisions restricting Congress' power to enforce the Civil War Amendments, the Southern states in the 1880s began passing laws to keep white and black people separate in public and private places. These laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws. Named after a minstrel show character who sang a funny song which ended in the words "But everytime I turn around I jump Jim Crow." These laws made life very hard for black Americans. It seemed every time they turned around there was a strict new law.

By the early twentieth century the word segregation was used to describe the system of separating people on the basis of race. Racial segregation existed in hotels, transportation systems, parks, schools, and hospitals throughout the South for many decades.

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, 1865–1916. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965.

Meltzer, Milton, ed. The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words, 1619–1983. 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.

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Civil Rights Cases 1883

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Civil Rights Cases 1883