The Constitution and Civil Rights

By Milton R. Konvitz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Civil Rights Cases, 1883

BOUT EIGHT YEARS AFTER the adoption of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court was called upon to pass on the constitutionality of that statute. The court considered together seven cases : two were indictments for denying to Negroes accommodations and privileges of an inn or a hotel ; two cases were actions for denying to individuals privileges and accommodations of a theater ; one action was for refusing a Negro a seat in the dress circle in a San Francisco theater ; one was for denying to a person full enjoyment of accommodations in the New York Grand Opera House ; and the last was an action to recover the statutory penalty from a railway company because of the refusal of the conductor to allow the complainant's wife to ride in the ladies' car because she was a Negro.

The decision and opinions in the Civil Rights Cases1 are of such far-reaching importance that a full analysis of them is necessary. The civil rights legislation adopted by Congress in the years 1866 to 1875 created a new concept of equality: that in the absence of slavery, no man should be subject to the incidents of slavery; that where the reality or substance of slavery is gone, its visible form or appearance should not be seen. The legislation was probably the first attempt in the history of mankind to destroy the branches of slavery after its root had been destroyed. What did the Supreme Court do with this legislation ?

It is to be noted at the outset that up to 1883 the Supreme Court had declared only two acts of Congress unconstitutional; namely, in Marbury v. Madison ( 1803), 2 and in the notorious Dred Scott case ( 1857). 3 In 1883, in the Civil Rights Cases, it

____________________
1
109 U.S. 3 ( 1883).
2
I Cranch ( U.S.) 137 ( 1803).
3
19 How. ( U.S.) 393 ( 1857).

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