This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a milestone in building support for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act; but it also marks the 120th anniversary of an earlier demonstration for racial equality under the law. On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court issued a single ruling on five cases involving civil rights protections that had been brought to it from a range of state courts. With one sweeping decision, the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This action alarmed African American citizens, and within a week black leaders had organized a “Civil Rights Mass-Meeting” at Lincoln Hall in Washington, DC. Frederick Douglass addressed the meeting on October 22, deploring and critiquing the decision.
The 1875 act had barred discrimination in public accommodations for black people, imposing fines and moderate prison terms on those who denied services. The law had not been consistently respected, and the five cases represented refusals of service in hotels, at theaters, and on a passenger train, in localities from the North to the South to the West. The court dispensed with the plaintiffs’ suits by ruling that the 13th and 14th amendments did not mandate equal accommodations for freed slaves; they did not require private citizens to treat African Americans on terms of “social equality.” They only prohibited the enactment of state laws that would deny minorities such rights as those to vote or hold property. In effect, the 1883 ruling gave a stamp of approval to segregationist practices that had become the norm in many parts of the country, but especially in the post-Reconstruction South.
Criticizing this decision, Douglass said he could not speak as an expert on Constitutional law; yet he offered arguments that coincide in several respects with the lone dissent to the Court’s ruling, that of Justice John Harlan. Douglass critiqued an inconsistent way of assessing Constitutional “intent,” pointing out that during the antebellum debate over slavery, abolitionists had been told by slavery’s proponents that Constitutional framers who had never used the word “slaves,” making only the vague reference to persons “held to service or labour,” clearly “intended” to sanction slavery. Now, after emancipation, those who supported discrimination interpreted the more explicitly worded 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to “intend” only a very limited degree of equality between the races. Likewise, Justice Harlan had implied that the majority of the Supreme Court had willfully misconstrued Congressional intent: “If the constitutional amendments be enforced, according to the intent with which, as I conceive, they were adopted,” he wrote, “there cannot be in this republic, any class of human beings in practical subjection to another class, with power . . . to dole out . . . just such privileges as they may choose to grant.” Harlan also warned: “Today, it is the colored race which is denied, by corporations and individuals wielding public authority, rights fundamental in their freedom and citizenship. At some future time, it may be that some other race will fall under the ban of race discrimination.” Douglass used argument and illustration to make the same point.
It would be another 80 years before Congress would again enact laws to guarantee civil rights to racial minorities.
Read Douglass’ speech on “The Civil Rights Case”