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U.S. Supreme Court: Civil Rights Cases, 1883

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Courtesy of Library of Congress, Bradley, Joseph P., "U.S. Reports: Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)," 1883


The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 combined five different cases that revolved around the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed all persons the enjoyment of transportation facilities, in hotels and inns and in theaters and places of public amusement regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Although privately owned, these were viewed by Congress to be quasi-public facilities carrying out public functions for the benefit of the public and therefore were subject to regulation. The Supreme Court examined the 1875 Civil Rights Act in light of the 13th and 14th amendments, asking itself the following questions: Was the conduct of business by a private individual subject to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment? Did the amendment prohibit state governments from discriminating, but did it allow individuals to do so? Was discrimination by business owners considered a lingering form of slavery? By an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. Neither the 13th or 14th amendments empowered Congress to pass laws that prohibited racial discrimination in the private sector. The 14th Amendment, read narrowly by the Supreme Court, applied only to state, not individual actions. In regard to the 13th Amendment, the discrimination by individuals in these cases were "ordinary civil injuries" rather than "badges of slavery." The Supreme Court also emphasized at the end of its decision that the time had come where former slaves were to be considered normal citizens rather than a special group favored by the law.

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Source-Dependent Questions

  • The law passed by Congress that was at the heart of this Supreme Court case was the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Explain the law using your own words.
  • What was the difference between corrective legislation and general legislation? Why did the Supreme Court feel the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was general and not corrective legislation?
  • What question did the Supreme Court ask itself when it interpreted the 13th Amendment? How did it answer that question?
  • At the time of this decision slavery had been abolished throughout the United States for 18 years. What did the comments made by the Supreme Court beginning with, "When a man has emerged from slavery…" reveal about its view of former slaves?
  • Overall, how would the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 13th and 14th Amendments have impacted race relations and the civil rights of African Americans?

Citation Information 

Bradley, Joseph P., "U.S. Reports: Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)," 1883. Courtesy of Library of Congress