Civil Rights Act of 1875: Summary & History

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The last landmark civil rights legislation of the 19th century was the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Learn what the controversial legislation attempted to protect and how it was eventually eliminated due to its unconstitutionality.

Context of the Act

During the period of Reconstruction, which took place between 1863 and 1877, the United States made several attempts to ensure the equal protection of African Americans under the law. The Reconstruction amendments, the Enforcement Acts and the Reconstruction Acts were all an attempt to guarantee the newly acquired rights of African Americans while rebuilding the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last major aim of the Reconstruction period and was the last piece of civil rights legislation to pass through Congress until 1957.

Defining the Legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was a far-reaching measure that was introduced to Congress by Massachusetts (Radical) Republican Senator Charles Sumner. This was a piece of legislation that Sumner had attempted to have enacted since the early 1860s. The Act called for the ban on discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. Simply put, the legislation guaranteed equal access to all Americans to schools, churches, shops and railroads. Additionally, the legislation prohibited exclusion of African American citizens from jury duty. Remember it this way: the Fourteenth Amendment provided equal protection for every naturalized American; the Civil Rights Act of 1875 extended those protections to include public services.

Battle in Congress

The civil rights legislation had first appeared in Congress in 1870. It was only in the waning months of 1874 that Senator Sumner made an exaggerated effort to move the legislation to a vote. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, Sumner passed away. Many feared that the legislation would be suspended and eventually forgotten. However, another prominent Massachusetts Senator, George Boutwell, pushed forward with the bill.

Congress debated the bill for several months. The contentious discussions were often polarized over equal access to schools and the right of the federal government to establish state juries. Supporters of the bill eventually had to accept many of their opponents' provisions as a means to move the legislation to a vote. Some of the negotiated terms included the acceptance of segregation in education, as well as the states' right to arrange a jury without the oversight of the federal government.

Toward a Vote

With the details of the pending Civil Rights Act of 1875 ironed out, Congress was able to put the legislation to a vote in February 1875. On February 4, 1875, the House of Representatives passed the measure 162 to 99. Quickly thereafter, the Senate passed the legislation on February 27, 1875, by a narrow vote of 38 to 26. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law on March 1, 1875. The new law guaranteed equal access to all accommodations while providing monetary compensation to anyone who was denied this right.

It is interesting to note that this legislation faced serious criticism from politicians and the public. Many scholars believe that the eventual passage was out of respect for the fallen Charles Sumner and his desire to see a lasting piece of legislation that would guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of color.

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