CRF Blog

What Are These Civil Rights Laws?

by Bill Hayes

In What Are These Civil Rights Laws? for Lapham’s Quarterly, Daniel Brook explores the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1883 decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In a consolidation of five lawsuits that became known as the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional. In all five cases, African Americans refused the use of public accommodations guaranteed to them by Senator Sumner’s law had pressed federal charges against the proprietors. Notably, only one of the cases originated in the South—that of a Tennessee railroad conductor who had attempted to physically push an African American woman out of a whites-only railcar. He only backed down when the fair-skinned, blue-eyed man who had boarded with the woman outed himself as her nephew and firmly requested that the conductor cease manhandling his aunt. The Midwest cases concerned a Kansas restaurateur and a Missouri innkeeper who refused to serve black patrons. The most famous of the cases came out of San Francisco and Manhattan, where recalcitrant theater owners had refused to seat black ticket holders despite the federal law. In the San Francisco case, a black man was refused a seat at a minstrel show at Maguire’s New Theater on Bush Street in 1876. In the New York case, a South Carolina transplant was denied a seat at the Grand Opera House in 1879 at a tragedy starring Edwin Booth, the brother of the man who had shot President Lincoln.

As the cases headed towards the Supreme Court, public support for civil rights continued to erode. In an 1879 editorial, the New York Times sneered that “to invoke the Civil Rights laws is becoming very fashionable. Within a few days a holder of a ticket to an uptown theater was refused his seat on account of color, and he threatens a civil rights action. Not many weeks ago a colored clergyman called for refreshments at an ice cream saloon in Jersey City; the proprietor refused to serve him, and at last reports he was consulting a lawyer about suing under the Civil Rights laws. At the South, two or three married couples have lately been prosecuted because, contrary to the law of the State, the husband was black and the wife white, and their lawyers have argued that such law amounted to nothing, because [it is] contrary to the Civil Rights laws. At the North, when the Jews are excluded from Saratoga or Coney Island hotels, they are counseled that by virtue of the Civil Rights laws they can insist on being received…What are these ‘Civil Rights laws’?…If a [businessman] does not wish to employ negroes, or…sell to negroes, there [ought be] no compulsion.” It was in this hostile climate that the Supreme Court heard the cases and issued its eight-to-one decision striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. [more]