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Civil Rights Acts

Federal legislation enacted by Congress over the course of a century beginning with the post-Civil War era that implemented and extended the fundamental guarantees of the Constitution to all citizens of the United States, regardless of their race, color, age, or religion.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 (14 Stat. 27) and 1870 (16 Stat. 140) were enacted to give newly freed slaves the same rights under federal law as those afforded to non-slaves. Such rights were the rights to sue and be sued, the rights to own real and PERSONAL PROPERTY, and the rights to testify and present evidence in legal proceedings. Serious questions existed, however, as to the constitutionality of the 1866 act and to whether Congress actually had authority to enact such a measure. Subsequent to the passage of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT in 1868, Congress reenacted the act pursuant to its power under the amendment to enforce the amendment through appropriate legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was, therefore, superseded by the CIVIL RIGHTS Act of 1870.

In 1875 Congress passed a third Civil Rights Act (18 Stat. 336) in response to the refusal of many whites who owned public establishments, inns, railroads, and other facilities to make them equally available to blacks. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in such places and guaranteed "full and equal enjoyment" of such places.

Violations of this act abounded and criminal prosecutions ensued. A number of convictions were appealed to the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES which in 1883 declared the act unconstitutional in the CIVIL RIGHTS CASES, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835. The Court reasoned that the social rights that the act safeguarded were not civil rights and, therefore, Congress was powerless to legislate on the social conduct of private individuals. Following this decision, states began enacting SEGREGATION into various laws, the most notorious of which were the JIM CROW LAWS. It took more than eighty years before Congress would again attempt to legislate in this area.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 represented congressional recognition that the federal government had to bring about an end to racial discrimination. The CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION was established and the laws guaranteed qualified voters the right to vote, regardless of their color. In the years 1964 to 1968 Congress enacted extensive and far-reaching legislation affording blacks equal status under the law, ranging from full and free enjoyment of public accommodations and facilities to the prohibition of racial discrimination in employment as well as transactions affecting housing in the United States.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 granted to victims of unlawful discrimination the right to seek money damages, jury trials, and back pay.

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