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Civil Rights Cases

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Significance: Ruling that key provisions in a federal civil rights law were unconstitutional, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to state action only and that Congress lacked authority to prohibit discrimination by private individuals.


The Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, or privately owned businesses such as hotels, places of entertainment, and railroad cars. Five cases arising under the act were consolidated for argument before the Supreme Court. Speaking for an 8-1 majority, Justice Joseph P. Bradley narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that Congress could forbid only abridgment of civil rights by state government officials. Individual citizens, therefore, must look to state governments for protection against discrimination by privately owned businesses. Looking at the Thirteenth Amendment, Bradley conceded that Congress had the power to obliterate the badges and incidents of slavery, but he argued that elimination of these badges and incidents did not guarantee access to private businesses. Free blacks in the North had often faced private acts of discrimination, but they were still free citizens. In a vigorous dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that the majority was using a “narrow and artificial” interpretation of the Constitution. He emphasized that inequality in civil rights was one of the badges and incidents of slavery that Congress might forbid under the Thirteenth Amendment. Seventy-nine years later, the Court reversed the majority's decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), relying on congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce. The Court accepted much of Harlan's broad interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968).