Fiorina Chapter 17: Civil Rights
Origins of Civil Rights
The term “
civil rights” refers to the right to equal treatment under the law.
The pertinent passage
of the Constitution is the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Minority groups with grievances mobilize in electoral politics and other venues, thus unifying
their numbers, influencing elections, and moving popular opinion to their side.
Because minority groups are seldom able to control election outcomes directly, they often pursue
legal strategies and engage the courts.
However, the courts have not always provided steady
leadership on civil rights issues.
Conflict over Civil Rights after the Civil War:
At the end of the Civil War, some southern states passed black codes, restrictive laws that applied
to newly-freed slaves but not to whites.
Some codes required freed slaves to enter into written
contracts for their labor each year, or denied access to the courts, or the ability to own property.
n response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to guarantee every citizen regardless
of race or color the same right to the full and equal benefit of all laws. In addition, Congress
established a Freedman’s Bureau, which provided blacks with education and other benefits.
Many southern whites resented the federal military presence in the south and the federal
As the years passed, there were charges of fraud, corruption, and mismanagement leveled against
both black elected officials and carpetbaggers. The Republicans won the presidency in 1876, but
only after promising Democrats they would remove the Union army from the South. This
brought the end to Reconstruction, and the whites reinstituted many of the old racial patterns.
The Ku Klux Klan used intimidation to keep blacks from voting. In addition, laws were passed
making it difficult for blacks to vote: poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and the white primary.
African Americans were also subject to Jim Crow laws, state laws that segregated the races from
Early Court Interpretations of Civil Rights:
With little public support for civil rights, the Supreme Court of the day took a very restrictive
view of the equal protection clause. Relying on the state action doctrine - the rule that only the
actions of state and local governments, not those of private individuals, must conform to the
equal protection clause, - the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1876 unconstitutional.
In the landmark case of
(1896) it developed the separate but equal doctrine.
Homer Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that required equal but separate accommodations” for
white and black railroad passengers.
By an 8-1 majority, the Supreme Court found that the
separation of racial groups did not stamp African Americans with a “badge of inferiority.”
famous dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan declared that the Constitution is color blind.