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Landmark Legislation: Civil Rights Act of 1875

Civil Rights Act of 1875

Radical Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the Civil Rights Act in 1870 as an amendment to a general amnesty bill for former Confederates. The bill guaranteed all citizens, regardless of color, access to accommodations, theatres, public schools, churches, and cemeteries. The bill further forbid the barring of any person from jury service on account of race, and provided that all lawsuits brought under the new law would be tried in federal, not state, courts.

Sumner predicted that the Civil Rights Act would be the greatest achievement of Reconstruction. “Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” he proclaimed. Unfortunately, Sumner did not live to see the fate of his bill. He died of a heart attack in 1874—just 63 years old. “Don’t let the bill fail,” the dying Sumner pleaded to Frederick Douglass and others at his bedside. “You must take care of [my] civil rights bill.”

In the months following Sumner’s death, Congress debated the bill. As another Republican senator from Massachusetts, George Boutwell, explained, the Reconstruction amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution) “did limit the power of the States; they did extend the power of the General Government,” but lawmakers in Washington failed to agree on how far the power of the federal government should be extended. After long and at times heated discussions on the Senate floor, the bill’s supporters agreed to drop one of the more contentious components of the bill, which would prohibit segregation in public schools. Another contentious debate in the Senate centered on the question of whether or not Congress had the constitutional right to define the composition of juries selected for state courts.

The Senate brought the bill to the floor for a vote in late February 1875. Perhaps as a last gesture of respect for the departed Charles Sumner, for whom securing civil rights had been a lifelong pursuit, the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 38 to 26 on February 27, 1875. The bill became law on March 1, 1875. The new law required: “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.” The second section provided that any person denied access to these facilities on account of race would be entitled to monetary restitution under a federal court of law.

The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1883. In a consolidated case, known as the Civil Rights Cases, the court found that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted Congress the right to regulate the behavior of states, not individuals. The decision foreshadowed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Court found that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.

For Further Reading:

Donald, David, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).