Civil Rights Act of 1875
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 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 on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” It was the fourth of a series of post–Civil War acts (1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875) passed to extend civil rights to African Americans, including the enjoyment of equal rights, liberty, property ownership, and protection from threat and intimidation. In spite of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Fifteenth Amendment, injustice, discrimination, and violence persisted against former slaves in all levels of American society.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1875 was initially introduced to Congress in 1870 by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Massachusetts Representative Benjamin F. Butler (Democrat) seeking to end discrimination and segregation in public facilities, establishments, and conveyances. In its preamble, the Act reaffirmed equality and justice for all as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Act contained three main points: first, it outlawed segregation and discrimination in public places on the basis of “nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political.” Second, it prohibited disqualifying any citizen for grand or petit jury in state or federal courts “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Third, it mandated the prosecution of “all crimes and offenses against, and violations of, the provisions of this act” in federal courts and made all cases arising from the violation of the provisions of the act reviewable by the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Act unconstitutional on the ground that, to cite part of the ruling, “the denial of equal accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement . . . imposes no badge of slavery or involuntary servitude upon the party, but at most, infringes rights which are protected from State aggression by the XIVth Amendment.” The majority decision claimed that discrimination did not go against the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment and that any infringement of the Fourteenth Amendment should be dealt with by states, not by the federal government. Judge John Harlan disagreed, arguing that discrimination was indeed a badge of servitude and thus Congress had the power to enact legislation to enforce the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment.
With this ruling, the Supreme Court sanctioned segregation, further reinforced by another Supreme Court decision in 1896 known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” accommodations, facilities, and conveyances for blacks and whites. A Supreme Court ruling in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ended segregation in schools. In 1964, Congress passed a civil rights law in the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, against discrimination in places of public accommodation.
Milton R. Konvitz and Theodore Leskes, A Century of Civil Rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).
Last updated: 2006