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The Civil Rights Case

Citation. 109 U.S. 3 (1883)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The group of respondents complained that the refusal to provide accommodations by private individuals in their States to colored persons violate the Constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Civil rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be impaired by the wrongful acts of private individuals as well as the States.


These cases were all founded on the Civil Rights Act of 1875 entitled “An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights.” Two cases were indictments for denying to persons of color the accommodations and privileges of an inn or hotel; two of them were for denying to individuals the privileges and accommodations of a theater of colored persons. The final case arose out of the refusal by the conductor of the railroad company to allow the wife to ride in the ladies’ car for the reason that she was a person of African descent. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act provide that all persons within the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, facilities, theaters, and other places of public accommodations.


Does the Civil Rights Act of 1875 violate the Constitution which reserves all powers not granted to the national government to the states or to the people?


Yes, the sections of the Civil Rights Act entitled “An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights” are unconstitutional and void. Civil rights such as are guaranteed by the Constitution against State aggression, cannot be impaired by the wrongful acts of individuals, unsupported by State authority in the shape of laws, customs, or judicial or executive proceedings. Here, the private parties discriminated against colored persons by refusing to provide public accommodations unsupported by any State authority but Congress may not prohibit such private acts.


Justice Harlan

The assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment consists wholly of prohibitions upon State laws in hostility to its provision is unauthorized by its language because the power of Congress is not restricted to the enforcement of prohibitions upon State laws or State action. Exemption from race discrimination in respect of any civil right belonging to citizens of the white race in the same State is their constitutional privilege when within the jurisdiction of other States. A denial to the citizen, because of his race, of that equality of civil rights, is a denial by the State, within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Under the Fourteenth Amendment, it is State action of a particular character that is prohibited. Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment. It nullifies and makes void all State legislation, and State action of every kind, which impairs the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, or which injures them in life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or which denied to any of them the equal protection of the laws. It not only does this but in order that the national will may not be a mere futile threat, the amendment invests Congress with power to enforce it by appropriate legislation: to enforce the prohibition of discrimination. Thus, until some State law has been passed, adverse to the rights of citizens sought to be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, no legislation of the United States can be called into activity.

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