Civil Rights Cases,
109 U.S. 3 (1883)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)

Civil Rights Cases

Submitted October Term, 1882

Decided October 16th, 1888

109 U.S. 3


1. The 1st and 2d sections of the Civil Rights Act passed March 1st, 1876, are unconstitutional enactments as applied to the several States, not being authorized either by the XIIIth or XIVth Amendments of the Constitution.

2. The XIVth Amendment is prohibitory upon the States only, and the legislation authorized to be adopted by Congress for enforcing it is not direct legislation on the matters respecting which the States are prohibited from making or enforcing certain laws, or doing certain acts, but is corrective legislation such as may be necessary or proper for counteracting and redressing the effect of such laws or acts.

Page 109 U. S. 4

The XIIIth Amendment relates only to slavery and involuntary servitude (which it abolishes), and, although, by its reflex action, it establishes universal freedom in the United States, and Congress may probably pass laws directly enforcing its provisions, yet such legislative power extends only to the subject of slavery and its incidents, and the denial of equal accommodations in inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement (which is forbidden by the sections in question), imposes no badge of slavery or involuntary servitude upon the party but at most, infringes rights which are protected from State aggression by the XIVth Amendment.

4. Whether the accommodations and privileges sought to be protected by the 1st and 2d sections of the Civil Rights Act are or are not rights constitutionally demandable, and if they are, in what form they are to be protected, is not now decided.

5. Nor is it decided whether the law, as it stands, is operative in the Territories and District of Columbia, the decision only relating to its validity as applied to the States.

6. Nor is it decided whether Congress, under the commercial power, may or may not pass a law securing to all persons equal accommodations on lines of public conveyance between two or more States.

These cases were all founded on the first and second sections of the Act of Congress known as the Civil Rights Act, passed March 1st, 1875, entitled "An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights." 18 Stat. 335. Two of the cases, those against Stanley and Nichols, were indictments for denying to persons of color the accommodations and privileges of an inn or hotel; two of them, those against Ryan and Singleton, were, one on information, the other an indictment, for denying to individuals the privileges and accommodations of a theatre, the information against Ryan being for refusing a colored person a seat in the dress circle of Maguire's theatre in San Francisco, and the indictment against Singleton was for denying to another person, whose color was not stated, the full enjoyment of the accommodations of the theatre known as the Grand Opera House in New York,

"said denial not being made for any reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, and regardless of any previous condition of servitude."

The case of Robinson and wife against the Memphis & Charleston R.R. Company was an action brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Tennessee to recover the penalty of five hundred dollars

Page 109 U. S. 5

given by the second section of the act, and the gravamen was the refusal by the conductor of the railroad company to allow the wife to ride in the ladies' car, for the reason, as stated in one of the counts, that she was a person of African descent. The jury rendered a verdict for the defendants in this case upon the merits, under a charge of the court to which a bill of exceptions was taken by the plaintiffs. The case was tried on the assumption by both parties of the validity of the act of Congress, and the principal point made by the exceptions was that the judge allowed evidence to go to the jury tending to show that the conductor had reason to suspect that the plaintiff, the wife, was an improper person because she was in company with a young man whom he supposed to be a white man, and, on that account, inferred that there was some improper connection between them, and the judge charged the jury, in substance, that, if this was the conductor's bona fide reason for excluding the woman from the car, they might take it into consideration on the question of the liability of the company. The case was brought here by writ of error at the suit of the plaintiffs. The cases of Stanley, Nichols, and Singleton came up on certificates of division of opinion between the judges below as to the constitutionality of the first and second sections of the act referred to, and the case of Ryan on a writ of error to the judgment of the Circuit Court for the District of California sustaining a demurrer to the information.

The Stanley, Ryan, Nichols, and Singleton cases were submitted together by the solicitor general at the last term of court, on the 7th day of November, 1882. There were no appearances, and no briefs filed for the defendants.

The Robinson case was submitted on the briefs at the last term, on the 9th day of arch, 1883.

Page 109 U. S. 8

Primary Holding

Since they apply only to government actions, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments are not an appropriate basis for Congress to pass laws protecting African-Americans from discrimination by private parties.


In five separate cases, African-Americans sued places of public accommodation such as hotels, theaters, and railroads for refusing them admittance or refusing them entry to areas designated as white-only. The consolidated matters were U.S. v. Stanley, U.S. v. Ryan, U.S. v. Nichols, U.S. v. Singleton, and Robinson v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad.



  • Joseph P. Bradley (Author)
  • Morrison Remick Waite
  • Samuel Freeman Miller
  • Stephen Johnson Field
  • William Burnham Woods
  • Stanley Matthews
  • Horace Gray
  • Samuel M. Blatchford

Drawing a distinction between state and private action, Bradley ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not permit the federal government to prohibit discriminatory behavior by private parties. His decision was based on a strict textual reading of the document. He found that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress the power to enforce the Amendment's provisions only against the states. Addressing a challenge to the private discriminatory actions under the Thirteenth Amendment, which bars involuntary servitude, Bradley argued that this is restricted to prohibiting the ownership of slaves, rather than other forms of discriminatory conduct.


  • John Marshall Harlan (Author)

Advocating for a broader understanding of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Harlan pointed to the public function that these places of accommodation serve. He tried to blur the line between state and private action, such as by linking private railroads to the government function of facilitating travel. Harlan felt that restrictions on the right to travel would violate the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude, and he suggested that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment might be implicated as well.

Case Commentary

This is one of the earliest articulations of the state action doctrine that limits the Fourteenth Amendment. If an action is taken by a private party, it cannot be attacked on constitutional grounds because the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to the government. As later cases reveal, however, there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances in which an action that is ostensibly by a private party can be considered state action because of the government's degree of involvement or the private party's assumption of government functions in a certain setting.

On a broader level, this decision set the stage for over half a century of discrimination and segregation, which would not end until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

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