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‘TIL That the Civil Rights Act Was Not the First One in the U.S., But Rather the Second One….’

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"... the Civil Rights Act was not the first one in the U.S., but rather the second one, as the first was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883."

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On August 31 2022, a Reddit account shared a post to r/todayilearned which made the assertion that the Civil Rights Act was not a novel effort — and that similar, preceding legislation was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883:

TIL that the civil rights act was not the first one in the U.S., but rather the second one, as the first was overturned by the supreme court in 1883. from todayilearned

That submission (as is common for posts on r/todayilearned) linked to a Wikipedia entry, “Civil Rights Act of 1875.” It began with basic information matching the claims of the Reddit post:

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, sometimes called the Enforcement Act or the Force Act, was a United States federal law enacted during the Reconstruction era in response to civil rights violations against African Americans. The bill was passed by the 43rd United States Congress and signed into law by United States President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. The act was designed to “protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights”, providing for equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation and prohibiting exclusion from jury service. It was originally drafted by Senator Charles Sumner in 1870, but was not passed until shortly after Sumner’s death in 1875. The law was not effectively enforced, partly because President Grant had favored different measures to help him suppress election-related violence against [Black people] and Republicans in the Southern United States … In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases that the public accommodation sections of the act were unconstitutional, saying Congress was not afforded control over private persons or corporations under the Equal Protection Clause.

Some additional historical context is important here.

What Was the Titular ‘The Civil Rights Act,’ and When Was it Enacted?

Presumably, the original poster referenced the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A “milestone document” hosted by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, at archives.gov) provided a transcript of the legislation itself, and explained that it was enacted against a backdrop of social upheaval and political opposition:

Civil Rights Act (1964)

This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

In a nationally televised address on June 6, 1963, President John F. Kennedy urged the nation to take action toward guaranteeing equal treatment of every American regardless of race. Soon after, Kennedy proposed that Congress consider civil rights legislation that would address voting rights, public accommodations, school desegregation, nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs, and more.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, his proposal culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law just a few hours after it was passed by Congress on July 2, 1964.

The act outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools.

Passage of the act was not easy, however. Opposition in the House of Representatives bottled up the bill in the House Rules Committee. In the Senate, Southern Democratic opponents attempted to talk the bill to death in a filibuster. In early 1964, House supporters overcame the Rules Committee obstacle by threatening to send the bill to the floor without committee approval. The Senate filibuster was overcome through the floor leadership of Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the considerable support of President Lyndon Johnson, and the efforts of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who convinced enough Republicans to support the bill over Democratic opposition. When the compromise bill was finally put to a vote in the Senate, it passed 73 to 27. It was noted in the Congressional Record that applause broke out in the Senate galleries.

In that excerpt, NARA described the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the “most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction,” alluding to earlier efforts following the Civil War. On Reddit, the title referenced previous legislation overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883, and the attached Wikipedia entry described the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875

According to Brittanica.com, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was enacted in March of that year and afforded Black Americans “the minimal rights of citizenship” (before the Supreme Court struck it down in 1883):

Civil Rights Act of 1875, U.S. legislation, and the last of the major Reconstruction statutes, which guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public transportation and public accommodations and service on juries. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases (1883).

Enacted on March 1, 1875, the Civil Rights Act affirmed the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibited racial discrimination in public places and facilities such as restaurants and public transportation. The law also made it a crime for anyone to facilitate the denial of such accommodations or services on the basis of colour, race, or “previous condition of servitude.” All lawsuits arising under the Civil Rights Act were to be tried in federal courts, rather than at the state level, though the act was seldom enforced. While few observers expected the legislation to change the prevailing racial attitudes held by both Northern and Southern whites, the law aimed to protect African Americans from deprivation of the minimal rights of citizenship.

Brittanica.com described the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as “the last of the major Reconstruction statutes,” which guaranteed civil rights to Black Americans — once again alluding to prior legislation.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1866

On the House of Representatives’ history.house.gov, an entry for the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 documented what was becoming a familiar tale — embattled civil rights legislation, enacted amid unrest and political squabbling:

On this date [April 9 1866], the House overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 with near unanimous Republican support, 122 to 41, marking the first time Congress legislated upon civil rights. First introduced by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the bill mandated that “all persons born in the United States,” with the exception of American Indians, were “hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” The legislation granted all citizens the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

To Radical Republicans, who believed the federal government had a role in shaping a multiracial society in the postwar South, the measure seemed the next logical step after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865 (which abolished slavery). Representative Henry Raymond of New York noted that the legislation was “one of the most important bills ever presented to this House for its action.” President Johnson disagreed with the level of federal intervention implied by the legislation, calling it “another step, or rather a stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national Government” in his veto message. The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 proved to be the opening salvo of the showdown between the 39th Congress (1865–1867) and the President over the future of the former Confederacy and African-American civil rights.

With respect to the Reddit title’s claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “the second one,” it was true that the entry referenced “the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.” But it also demonstrated efforts to legally protect the civil rights of Black Americans as early as 1866, almost a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1875 entered the American historical record.

Summary

A popular August 31 2022 r/todayilearned post claimed “that the civil rights act [of 1964] was not the first one in the U.S., but rather the second one, as the first was overturned by the supreme court in 1883.” It was true that a previous civil rights act (the Civil Rights Act of 1875) existed, and was largely nullified by the Supreme Court in 1883. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was preceded by the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 — an effort to grant “all citizens the ‘full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property'” in the United States.