Civil Rights Cases

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The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)[1], were a group of five similar cases consolidated into one issue for the United States Supreme Court to review. The Court held that Congress lacked the constitutional authority under the enforcement provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals and organizations, rather than state and local governments.

More particularly, the Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided 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; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude" was unconstitutional.

Contents

Facts

The decision itself involved five consolidated cases coming from different lower courts in which African-Americans had sued theaters, hotels and transit companies that had refused them admittance or excluded them from "white only" facilities.

Decision of the Court

The Court, in a decision by Justice Joseph P. Bradley, held that the language of the 14th Amendment, which prohibited denial of equal protection by a state, did not give Congress power to regulate these private acts. The Court also acknowledged that the 13th Amendment does apply to private actors, but only to the extent that it prohibits people from owning slaves, not exhibiting discriminatory behavior. The Court said that "it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to 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 theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business."

Dissent

Justice Harlan challenged the Court's narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in his dissent. As he noted, Congress was attempting to overcome the refusal of the states to protect the rights denied to African-Americans that white citizens took as their birthright:

Consequences of the decision

Harlan correctly predicted the consequences of this decision: it put an end to the attempts by Radical Republicans to ensure the civil rights of blacks and ushered in the widespread segregation of blacks in housing, employment and public life that confined them to second-class citizenship throughout much of the United States until the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.

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