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Handout #3:
THE CIVIL RIGHTS CASES (1883)

Seven years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress attempted to legislate equal rights for African Americans by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Among other things, this act gave African Americans full and equal access to inns, theaters, trains, and other public facilities. There were many legal challenges to this law.

In 1883, the Supreme Court consolidated a group of cases referred to as the Civil Rights Cases. The plaintiffs each challenged the actions that took place against them between 1875 and 1883.

Brief facts of the cases that were combined:

  • Mr. Bird Gee was denied the ability to eat dinner at a table at an inn because he was a person of color. The event happened in Kansas.

  • Mr. George M. Tyler bought a theater ticket for an orchestra seat at Maguire's Theater in San Francisco, California. Orchestra seats were superior to other seats in the theater. The ticket taker denied Mr. Tyler access to his seat because he was a person of color.

  • Ms. Sallie J. Robinson purchased a first-class ticket to go from Grand Junction to Lynchburg, Tennessee. She tried to go to the ladies' car, which was provided for ladies and first-class passengers. The conductor refused to allow her to enter because she was a person of color.

  • In Missouri, W. H. R. Agee was denied a room at the Nichols House, an inn "for the accommodation of travelers and the general public." Mr. Nichols denied Mr. Agee accommodations because he was a person of color.

Constitutional question:
The issue in these cases was whether or not the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was constitutional. That is, did Congress have the power to enact such legislation under the authority of the Fourteenth Amendment? If the act was constitutional, then the people running the various accommodations would be subject to prosecution.

Directions:
The following quotes/arguments appeared in the Supreme Court's 1883 opinion in the Civil Rights Cases. Read each statement and decide whether it supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was constitutional and should be upheld or reflects the position that the law was unconstitutional. If the statement supports the constitutionality of the act, write a C in the blank. If it supports the idea that the act is unconstitutional, write a U in the blank.

A. _______ It is State action of a particular character that is prohibited [by the Fourteenth Amendment]. Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the amendment.

B. _______ 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.

C. _________ The Act demonstrates that Congress intended to wipe out all discrimination against blacks and "to secure and protect rights belonging to them as freemen and citizens; nothing more."

D. _________ [Congress] simply declares, in effect, that, since the nation has established universal freedom in this country for all time, there shall be no discrimination, based merely upon race or color, in respect of the accommodations and advantages of public conveyances, inns, and places of public amusement.

E. ________ In every material sense applicable to the practical enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, railroad corporations, keepers of inns, managers of places of public amusement are agents or instrumentalities of the State, because they are charged with duties to the public and are amenable, in respect of their duties and functions, to government regulation.


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