Civil Rights Cases (1883)



The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 were a group of five cases consolidated by the Supreme Court because of their similarity. Each case involved Black Americans being denied entrance to a public area that was privately owned. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it was illegal to discriminate against citizens based on their race. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled this act unconstitutional and Justice Bradley proclaimed that private business owners should have the right to regulate who has access to their business. According to the ruling, the federal government cannot make private business owners serve black patrons constitutionally. Their reaspiconing was that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was not backed by the 13th or 14th amendments and therefore could not be enforced.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was established to protect all citizens’ human and civil rights. Most importantly, it provided protection of equal rights to newly freed Black Americans. It stated that all native born or naturalized citizens have equal rights regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. This Act caused uproar for some because of the regulation on public places. Many white business owners did not want the presence of black patrons and wanted to continue business as “white only”.

The decision of ruling The Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, paved the way for “Jim Crow” laws to exist and years of despair for Black Americans, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The ruling also allowed the future “separate but equal” system to be logical and constitutional. The decision of SCOTUS in these cases was very significant in the history of US civil rights.



After the civil war, black representatives were preoccupied with passing the Civil Rights Bill because the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Ku Klux Klan Acts didn’t seem effective enough. Opponents of the bill argued the bill was redundant and was beyond the scope of Congress’ power.1 Black congressional representatives were able to give anecdotal stories of racism in hotels, southern railroads, and theaters to highlight the necessity of the bill.1 After 5 years and several revisions, the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 passed 162 to 99. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 mandated that owners of public facilities, such as inns, restaurants, railroads, and other carriers, not discriminate against blacks who sought access to, or service from, them on the basis of their race. Anyone who violated the law was subject to criminal prosecution.2 As many opponents of the bill that prophesied, no law could force social equality, especially in the south. 1 Five cases regarding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act were consolidated into one. 2 These cases could be grouped together because in each case a black person was denied the same accommodations as a white person in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.3

civil rigjht 1866(1)


The cases entered the court system as 5 separate cases from multiple states. The cases included United States v. Stanley, United States v. Ryan, United States v. Nichols, United States v. Singleton, and Robinson and wife v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company. Each case included the discrimination and lack of admittance of a Black American. Two of the incidents were at theatres, two at hotels and one at a transit. Each entered the court systems on the grounds that this discrimination was illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1875. When the cases reached the Supreme Court, they were consolidated into one because of their similarity in nature. The SCOTUS combined these five cases naming them “The Civil Rights Cases.” It was soon decided, in an 8-1 decision, that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and the Black Americans had no recourse against their discrimination. The court ruled that it is unconstitutional to regulate private businesses and that such businesses have the right to deny entrance as they please. SCOTUS announced their decision on October 15, 1883.


Does Congress have the power, under the 13th Amendment, to regulate private acts outside of slavery?
Does Congress have the power, under the 14th Amendment, to regulate private acts in order to provide equal protection?


The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 were brought to the courts attention by several African American citizens who felt as if their rights were being violated as they were denied service by several white business owners. Though this was reviewed as one Supreme Court Case it did not come to the Supreme Court in said fashion. This case consisted of five lower appellate court cases that all shared the commonality of using the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to support their arguments of discriminatory acts brought against them. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 stated that all people shall be granted equal rights when dealing with services being provided by a business or establishment. After not receiving the same privileges as white Americans the journey of the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 began as black Americans decided to file suits.


Privately owned businesses serve as the defendants in this case. As the case began white business owners clearly had the upper hand as the case took place during an era when discrimination was something that was not foreign to American culture. The defendants of this case provided a counter argument stating that their constitutional rights were being infringed upon as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 required that they serve everyone. Being that these businesses were privately owned and not state businesses the defendants felt as if they did not have to abide by the rules implicated by the federal government; they felt that the decision of who they welcomed or did not welcome was a private matter. The court agreed.


In an 8-1 decision The United States Supreme court decided that The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. Given that each of the cases involved in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 were all based upon this act the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the businesses that refused to provide services to African Americans stating that privately owned businesses had the right to refuse service to those that they did not want to serve. Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote the majority opinion stating that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and that it was not protected by neither the 13th amendment nor the 14th amendment. The 13th amendment while applying to private services only involves those services that involve slaves stating that one person is not allowed to own another. It says nothing about behavior that involves discriminatory acts. The 14th amendments equal protection clause is one that could not be implemented because it states that equality must be distributed in state affairs but says nothing directly about private affairs. Justice Bradley goes further to say that private acts of racial discrimination are ones that are privately wrong and that the federal government has no control over said businesses that choose to display such behavior. The decision concludes that by allowing this act to pass would simply be running the idea of discrimination in the ground giving blacks special treatment.


Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justice Waite, Justice Miller, Justice Fields, Justice Woods, Justice Matthews, Justice Grey, and Justice Blatchford. The decision to declare the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional was based on the accusation that the law violated the United States constitution in that it attempted to force privately owned businesses to serve all people without taking discriminatory actions based on race. In his writing, Bradley writes that neither the 13th nor the 14th amendments justify the law. The courts declared that the equal protection clause upheld by the 14th amendment was one that did not apply in this case given that it states that equal protection must be carried out by the states; the 14th amendment does not give congress the right to force individuals to practice the constructs of equal protection as an individual. While writing Bradley also addresses the 13th amendment stating that it protects people against slavery, not discriminatory acts that are against them. The court felt as if the argument of slavery was being run into the ground and that it was being used as a crutch to address every act of discrimination that appeared before the court.

Justice Joseph P. Bradley


Chief Justice Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion stating that the 13th amendment was put in place to abolish slavery including acts causing one race to feel inferior to another. Harlan states the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was put in place to assure that blacks were given the same rights as any other citizen not to provide them with special privileges. Justice Harlan felt that the 13th and 14th amendments gave congress the ability to provide equal protection to all citizens.



The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 had a large impact on American culture as it has helped the United States evolve over decades. Curiosity emerged when discussing whether or not The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was constitutional and whether or not it violated the constitutional rights of American citizens. This United States federal law stated that African Americans are granted equal protection when involving public accommodations, public transportation, and to prohibit exclusion from jury service. After careful consideration the 43rd United States Congress decided that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was one that was not in violation of the United States constitution. Congress passed the bill and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it allowing it to become a law on March 1, 1875. When the Civil rights Cases of 1883 surfaced the United States Supreme Court then decided that there were certain components within the act that did violate the constitution. It was argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was protected by the 13th and 14th amendments; the courts disagreed stating that these two amendments were ones put in place for other means of protection that did not include the services in which the Civil Rights Act of 1875 wanted to enforce. This decision was based upon the consensus that the federal government does not have the power or ability to force privately owned businesses to provide equal rights to anyone that wants to benefit the services of a business. The 14th amendment involves rights that pertain to the jim-crow-must-go-350.gifstates, not to individuals who act on their own merit. The federal government may only force regulations on state businesses. While reviewing the validity of the act in writing the majority opinion Justice Joseph P. Bradley addresses the 13th amendment stating that in the writing of the 13th amendment the idea of racial discrimination in public places was one that was not included. The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 was the result of several protests that took place within the United States. These protests were organized to bring awareness to the treatment that African American citizens received when entering establishments that were owned by white people who refused to provide services to African American people solely based upon racial discrepancies. These protests that took place effected the social construct of the United States as the American people’s attention was brought to the idea of equality in other aspects of the everyday life of the American people. By bringing awareness to these issues the idea of unity was also established as white Americans also spoke out against the inequality that the courts decided to support in their 8-1 decision. This resulted in Indignation meetings. Southern states later took advantage of the overturn of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This influenced them to begin writing laws that implemented segregation making it harder for African Americans. This led to influential laws like Jim Crow laws that would later cause an even larger uproar amongst the American people. As southern states implemented these efforts northern and western states instead went in the opposite direction implementing laws that fought for equality nationwide not treating African Americans as second class citizens but instead as people of equal value. As a result of The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 overturning the constructs of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 the efforts laid out by the Civil Rights Act of 1875 will later be address in a new law, The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act bands discrimination with public facilities across the United States. Congress justified implementing this law based on several sections of the constitution (Article 1 section 8, the 14th amendment, and the 15th amendment).



Congress lacked the authority under the enforcement provisions of the 14th amendment to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals because that power is reserved to the states. In turn undermining the authority that was given by section 2 of the 13th amendment. 4   


Civil Rights Act of 1875


  • United States v. Stanley
  • United States v. Ryan
  • United States v. Nichols
  • United States v. Singleton
  • Robinson v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad


  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
  • Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1954)
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
  • Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority (1961)
  • Moose Lodge 107 v. Irvis (1972)


1. History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian,Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008. “Legislative Interests,” Retrieved April 28 2016 Amendment/Legislative-Interests/

2. West Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. S.v. "Civil Rights Cases." Retrieved April 28 2016 from

3. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “The Civil Rights Cases.” Oyez Retvrieved April 28 2016 from

4.“Civil Rights Cases, 1883.” American Eras. 1997. (April 12, 2016).


Spring 2016: Veronica Macias, Kelly Barber, Olivia Copeland, Anna Kimbrough, Ridge Pierre


  • Decision analysis
  • As for the decision, the case was 8-1 it would be beneficial to elaborate each justice’s individual decision. (Whether any justices were hesitant to their decision)
  • More elaboration of the five cases before they were consolidated into one for SCOTUS
  • Scholarly Commentary and Debate
  • Academic books articles and law reviews
  • Properly Cite Photos