On this dayOct 15, 1883

Supreme Court Strikes Down Civil Rights Act, Legitimating Segregation and Violent Assaults Against Black People

In 1875, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial discrimination in access to public accommodations and facilities. A number of African Americans subsequently sued businesses that refused to serve Black customers. The Supreme Court heard five of those cases in 1883, and on October 15, 1883, it struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in an 8-1 decision known as the Civil Rights Cases.

The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment, which was cited as the constitutional authorization for the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and mandates “equal protection of the laws,” did not apply to private citizens or entities. The Court decided that the Equal Protection Clause applied only to actions taken or laws passed by state governments. Writing for the majority less than 20 years after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, Justice Joseph Bradley questioned the necessity and appropriateness of laws aimed at protecting Black people from discrimination:

"When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected."

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Civil Rights Cases eliminated the only federal law that prohibited racial discrimination by individuals or private businesses and left African Americans who were victims of private discrimination to seek legal recourse in unsympathetic state courts. Racial discrimination in housing, restaurants, hotels, theaters, and employment became increasingly entrenched and persisted for generations. It would be more than 80 years before Congress tried again to outlaw discrimination by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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