… President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
This tends to surprise many people, even those who can refer to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, maybe even the Act of 1957. But it’s a bit of a shock that Civil Rights was the topic of an act of Congress only ten years after the end of The Civil War. Yet political and legal battles would be waged for almost another century before full civil rights law was established.
The 1875 Act was written in an attempt to provide equal access to public accommodations such as restaurants, trains, theatres, etc. The reason why so many have problems recognizing the earliest civil rights law was that it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883. Its rejection by the country’s highest court was based on the law’s lack of standing within the context of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Fact is, in its eight-year existence the 1875 Act was rarely – if ever – enforced anyway.
What is most telling to me, is the realization as early as the 1870s that only reliance upon national law held any potential for mitigating the heinous treatment of African-Americans, both pre-Civil War freemen and newly liberated slaves. And that despite this realization, it would take another 89 years before full civil rights legislation was enacted.
In 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 provided voting rights to black Americans in a way that was ineffectual in increasing their political power. Then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson is touted with the tricky political accomplishment of both progressing the measure through Congress, while at the same time ensuring the bill’s evisceration by assigning it to a Judiciary Committee run by anti-civil rights Senator James Eastland (MS). The bill’s eventual passage also had to survive the longest lasting Senate filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond, who railed on about nothing in particular for 24 hours, 18 minutes.
It would not be until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that full civil rights to women as well as blacks would be institutionalized. Oddly enough, the Act of 1964 was signed into law by the very same, now-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.