The Supreme Court of the United States made a string of historic decisions in the civil rights era that made it illegal to treat people differently because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. These decisions have had far-reaching effects on American culture and continue to mold our modern conception of civil rights and liberties. In this article, we'll look back at the landmark civil rights cases in the struggle for equality.

1875 Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 is a federal law that guaranteed African Americans access to public accommodation on par with white citizens. This included hotels, theaters, and public transportation.

The act was put into effect in the aftermath of the Civil War, at a time when many states were enacting Jim Crow laws to limit the rights of Black citizens. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not include restrictions on racial discrimination in employment. 

While the Civil Rights Act was a significant step forward, its enforcement was ultimately unsuccessful, and it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883. Nonetheless, the act set an important precedent for subsequent legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Congress did not pass another bill of this nature until 1957.

The Civil Rights Cases of 1883

The 1883 Civil Rights Cases were a group of five landmark cases that resulted from a change in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Prior to these cases, the Court interpreted the amendment as primarily concerned with protecting African Americans' civil rights.

The five consolidated cases were:

  • Robinson and wife v. Memphis and Charleston R.R. Co.  
  • United States v. Stanley 
  • United States v. Nichols 
  • United States v. Ryan
  • United States v. Singleton 

However, in a series of decisions known as the “Slaughter-House Cases,” the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the authority to regulate such supposed state laws that violated the civil rights of any group, nor did it give the national government the authority to investigate civil rights violations cases. As a result, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was enacted to protect African Americans from discrimination, was effectively rendered invalid.

The 1883 Civil Rights Cases were filed in an attempt to overturn this decision, and all five were decided by a razor-thin margin. The Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs in each case, effectively establishing the “Slaughter-House Cases” as precedent.

While these decisions limited the federal government's ability to protect civil rights, they did not deter activists from fighting for equality. The civil rights movement would eventually gain traction in the years following World War II, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Precursors to the 1883 Civil Rights Cases

The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 were a watershed moment in American civil rights history. For the first time, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a set of federal laws requiring equal access to public accommodation. The decision was a major setback for the civil rights movement, and it took the Court nearly a century to reverse it. But what led to this controversial ruling?

The Civil Rights Cases have their origins in Reconstruction, when Congress passed a series of laws to protect from discrimination the people who had recently been freed from servitude. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was one of those state laws, which guaranteed equal access to "inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of amusement." Despite its good intentions, the act was poorly written and easily circumvented. As a result, it had little impact on most Black people’s lives.

In United States v. Stanley, the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 1880. The Stanley decision appeared to give Congress the tool it needed to protect Black people from discriminative and unjust laws. However, just three years later, the Supreme Court, in a decision known as The Civil Rights Cases of 1883, struck down key provisions of both the 1866 Act and the 1875 Act.

In doing so, the Court effectively ended Reconstruction and ushered in a new era of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Other Famous Civil Rights Cases

Civil rights cases continue to be heard by the United States’ highest court, and each one has the potential to alter the course of history. These are just a few of the many civil rights cases that have shaped the US and that continue the fight for equality for all.

1873 - United States v. Cruikshank

The United States v. Cruikshank case was a landmark United States Supreme Court decision that overturned the convictions of three white men accused of violating the civil rights of Black men during the Colfax Massacre.

The case arose from a mass killing that occurred on Easter Sunday, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, when a large group of white men attacked a group of Black people who were defending the Colfax courthouse.

Over 100 Black men were killed in the attack, and the courthouse was destroyed. The three men convicted in federal court for their roles in the massacre claimed that their rights had been violated because they were not given a jury trial.

In the Cruikshank case, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to a jury trial in federal criminal cases is not guaranteed by the Constitution, and that the national government lacks the authority to protect citizens from violence perpetrated by private individuals. The ruling effectively nullified the 1870 Enforcement Act, which was enacted to combat Ku Klux Klan violence against the Black population.

Highly criticized at the time, it is regarded as one of the court's most infamous decisions. However, some legal scholars have argued in recent years that the decision was correct and that it was only those later Supreme Court decisions that expanded the federal government's power to protect civil and legal rights.

Whether you agree with the decision or not, it is undeniably one of the most controversial civil rights cases in Supreme Court history.

1896 - Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation as constitutional. The case arose from an incident in Louisiana in which a man named Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a train car that was only for white people.

Plessy challenged his arrest, claiming that the state's segregation laws violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 against Plessy, specifying that “separate but equal” accommodation was constitutional.

For nearly 60 years, the ruling effectively endorsed Jim Crow laws and helped to solidify racial segregation in the United States. The case is also significant because of the dissenting opinion, which paved the way for future challenges to segregation laws.

Justice John Marshall Harlan made a powerful argument against racial discrimination, stating that "our Constitution is color-blind." In spite of Harlan’s protests and stirring words, the Plessy decision solidified racial segregation in state law and established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was later dropped by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

1954 - Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1954. Oliver Brown filed the lawsuit after attempting to enroll his daughter in an all-white school in Topeka, Kansas. The district court ruled against Brown, and the case was heard by the Supreme Court. Consequently, racial segregation in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Court, unanimously.

The Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, determined that "separate but equal" facilities were inherently unequal and violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The decision overturned the Court's previous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine.

Brown v. Board of Education is widely regarded as one of the most significant legal decisions in all civil rights history. It paved the way for the desegregation of public schools and other institutions, as well as a greater understanding of the value of full and equal enjoyment for all Americans.

1967 - Loving v. Virginia

The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia on June 12, 1967, overturning all state laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Mildred and Richard Loving, a Black woman and a white man who were married in Washington, D.C, brought the case in 1958. 

They were arrested and charged with violating the state's anti-miscegenation laws when they returned to their home state of Virginia, making this one of the most important civil rights issues. The Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the understanding that they could serve their sentence on probation if they left the state and did not return together for the next 25 years.

The Lovings appealed their sentence, claiming that Virginia law violated their right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The freedom to marry, according to the Supreme Court, has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.

The Loving decision rendered all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States null and void, paving the way for more mixed-race couples to marry without fear of criminal prosecution.

Why Civil Rights Cases Matter Today

Despite the fact that laws did little to protect Black people from discrimination, many of them had a deeper and broader scope in that they helped fight such measures in the long run. Civil rights in Supreme Court cases are important, not only because they set legal precedents but because they help ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equally under the law. 

These landmark cases helped shape civil rights law in the United States and continue to have an impact on society today. By studying these cases, we can better understand the importance of civil and human rights, as well as the fight for equality and civil freedom, and discover new ways to improve the lives of those who face discrimination.