Civil Rights Cases | 1883
Howard University Professor of Law and Dean
U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner
Choose a video from the playlist below
  • Civil Rights Cases Full Program
  • Inherently Unequal
  • Case Preview
  • Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner
  • Frederick Douglass reaction to Civil Rights Cases decision
  • Justice Harlan's Dissent
  • Justice Harlan & His Half Brother
  • John Marshall Harlan High School
  • The Great Dissenter
Subject: Overruling the Civil Rights Act of 1875
Case Decided:
October 15, 1883

Civil Rights Cases (1883) were a series of five cases that were decided en bloc. Despite the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period, the Court in an 8-1 decision held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was not constitutional under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments. This set the tone for the legality of the Jim Crow era of segregation for African Americans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed African Americans equal protection rights in public places such as theaters, hotels and trains and imposed retribution against owners of private businesses that did not comply with the law. In 1883, the Supreme Court took up five cases all filed by African Americans claiming refusal of access to hotels, theaters, restaurants and trains -- access they were entitled to under the Civil Rights Act.

Justice Joseph Bradley, who authored the majority opinion, said that neither the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments gave Congress the power to enforce laws dealing with racial discrimination by private citizens or businesses. Justice John Marshall Harlan established himself as the "Great Dissenter" by writing the sole dissenting opinion in the case. In his dissent, he said the Court's decision was decided on "grounds too narrow and artificial" and felt the federal government had a duty to protect citizens from actions that stripped them of their rights

Key Players
Justice Joseph Bradley
Joseph Bradley (March 14, 1813 – January 22, 1892) was a prominent railroad lawyer and Republican activist. He was appointed by President Ulysses Grant. Despite his recognized support for the Fourteenth Amendment, Bradley voted with the majority in many cases denying federal protection for the rights of African Americans. His most famous statement was delivered in the the Civil Rights Cases of 1883.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Justice John Marshall Harlan
John Marshall Harlan (June 1, 1833 – October 14, 1911) was a lawyer, civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice (1877-1911). Justice Harlan was the sole dissenter in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that took down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He is referred to as the "Great Dissenter" and is one of the most influential dissenters in the Court's history. His role as an early white advocate of African-American rights stemmed from his family's slave-owning history and his relationship with his mixed-race half-brother Robert.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
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