About the US Civil Rights Act of 1875

Old drawing of a pair of white hands placing a civil rights bill into the hands of a black person
The Civil Rights Act. MPI / Getty Images

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was a United States federal law enacted during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era that guaranteed African Americans equal access to public accommodations and public transportation.

The law read, in part: “… 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 law also prohibited the exclusion of any otherwise qualified citizen from jury duty because of their race and provided that lawsuits brought under the law must be tried in the federal courts, rather than state courts.

The law was passed by the 43rd United States Congress on February 4, 1875, and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. Parts of the law were later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was one of the main pieces of Reconstruction legislation passed by Congress after the Civil War. Other laws enacted included the Civil Rights Act of 1866, four Reconstruction Acts enacted in 1867 and 1868, and three Reconstruction Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871.

The Civil Right Act in Congress

Initially intended to implement the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 traveled a long and bumpy five-year journey to final passage.

The bill was first introduced in 1870 by Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, widely regarded as one of the most influential civil rights advocates in Congress. In drafting the bill, Sen. Sumner was advised by John Mercer Langston, a prominent African American attorney and abolitionist who would later be named the first dean of the Howard University law department.

In considering his Civil Rights Act to be the key to achieving the highest goals of Reconstruction, Sumner once stated, “Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented.” Sadly, Sumner did not survive to see his bill voted on, dying at age 63 of a heart attack in 1874. On his deathbed, Sumner pleaded to famed African-American social reformer abolitionist, and statesman Frederick Douglass, “Don’t let the bill fail.”

When first introduced in 1870, the Civil Rights Act not only banned discrimination in public accommodations, transportation, and jury duty, it also prohibited racial discrimination in schools. However, in the face of growing public opinion favoring enforced racial segregation, Republican lawmakers realized that the bill had no chance of passing unless all references to equal and integrated education were removed.

Over the many long days of debate on the Civil Rights Act bill, lawmakers heard some of the most impassioned and impactful speeches ever delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives. Relating their personal experiences of discrimination, African American Republican representatives carried the debated in favor of the bill.

“Every day my life and property are exposed, are left to the mercy of others and will be so long as every hotel-keeper, railroad conductor, and steamboat captain can refuse me with impunity,” said Rep. James Rapier of Alabama, adding famously, “After all, this question resolves itself into this: either I am a man or I am not a man.”

After nearly five years of debate, amendment, and compromise the Civil Rights Act of 1875 won final approval, passing in the House be a vote of 162 to 99.

Supreme Court Challenge

Considering slavery and racial segregation to be different issues, many white citizens in the Northern and the Southern states challenged Reconstruction laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1875, claiming they unconstitutionally infringed of their personal freedom of choice.

In an 8-1 decision issued on October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court declared key sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional.

As part of its decision in the combined Civil Rights Cases, the Court held that while the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination by the state and local governments, it did not grant the federal government the power to prohibit private individuals and organizations from discriminating on the basis of race.

In addition, the Court held that the Thirteenth Amendment had been intended only to ban slavery and did not prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 would be the last federal civil rights law enacted until ​the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 during the early stages of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Stripped of all protections against discrimination and segregation in education, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had little practical impact on racial equality during the eight years it was in force before being struck down by the Supreme Court.   

Despite the law’s lack of immediate impact, many provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were eventually adopted by Congress during the civil rights movement as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act). Enacted as part of the Great Society social reform program of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permanently outlawed segregated public schools in America.