Oct. 15, 1883

Justice John Harlan Credit: Wikipedia

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 as unconstitutional, saying the government could not control the prejudices of people or companies. 

Black Americans had sued theaters, hotels and transit companies, which refused them admittance, but Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in an 8-1 decision that “legislative power extends only to the subject of slavery … and the denial of equal accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement … imposes no badge of slavery or involuntary servitude upon the party.” 

Bishop Henry McNeil Turner raged that the “world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of” this ruling, which “has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today.” 

In a dissent, Justice John Harlan decried such discrimination, saying the goal of government is to “mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political.” Harlan called such discrimination a “badge of servitude, the imposition of which Congress may prevent under its power, through appropriate legislation, to enforce the 13th Amendment.” 

Black Americans would have to wait eight decades before Congress passed another civil rights law barring discrimination in public accommodations and employment.

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