In 1875, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial discrimination in access to public accommodations and facilities. Over the ensuing years, a number of African Americans sued businesses that denied them access to segregated facilities. In 1883, the Supreme Court heard five of those cases, and, on October 15, 1883, struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in an 8-1 decision known as the Civil Rights Cases.
In 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,” does not apply to private entities. According to the Court, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to actions taken by state governments or laws passed by state governments, and did not give Congress the power to regulate the actions of private entities. Writing for the majority less than twenty years after ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, 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 take more than eighty years for the federal government to outlaw discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar. America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans. The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood. EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.