Civil Rights Law of 1873

Passed after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and freed some four million slaves in the United States, leading led to the question of their legal status: they were no longer slaves, but they also were not citizens. The governments of all of the former slave states grappled with this issue, but it was especially important in Mississippi, where former slaves comprised 55 percent of the population.

Southern white Democratic leaders could not imagine former slaves as equals after generations of prohibiting them from even learning to read and write. Moreover, whites feared that blacks would vote for the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and the North and were concerned about losing the relatively cheap labor considered integral to the economy. The governments of Mississippi and many other former slave states reacted by adopting a series of restrictive laws known as the Black Codes that sought to prevent African Americans from gaining political power and to prevent changes in labor and social relations. Mississippi simply replaced the word slave with freedman in the criminal code and used vagrancy laws to maintain the previous rules of etiquette governing black-white social interactions.

The Radical Republican–dominated US Congress, already in a power struggle with Pres. Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat, reacted angrily and deposed the state governments appointed by Johnson immediately after the Civil War. Congress declared Mississippi under the control of the Fourth Military District, subject to martial law, and prohibited most white southern leaders from political and civic participation, beginning what became known as Radical Reconstruction or Congressional Reconstruction. Fearing that the return of southern Democrats to national politics would help the party regain control of the federal government, Radical Republicans demanded that blacks receive not only civil liberties but also the right to vote, which had been denied to African Americans as late as 1867 in New Jersey, Ohio, and Maryland. That same year, at least ten states, including California, New Jersey, and Ohio, initially rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to blacks and former slaves.

White Mississippians who joined the new Republican Party were known derisively as scalawags; the party, which dominated Mississippi’s Reconstruction-era politics, also included carpetbaggers (northerners and former Union soldiers who had moved south) and local free blacks and former slaves. The new state government began adopting a series of laws abolishing the Black Codes by guaranteeing civil liberties and voting rights and ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. On 7 February 1873 their efforts culminated in Mississippi’s adoption of the most sweeping civil rights legislation enacted to date.

The Civil Rights Law of 1873 sought to guarantee a degree of social equality beyond mere civic equality by requiring equal accommodations and prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation and entertainment such as inns, hotels, and theaters. It amended and expanded an 1871 law that outlawed segregation on railroads, stagecoaches, and steamboats, imposing penalties of up to one thousand dollars and three years in jail. The sweeping new law soon received its first test when George Donnell, doorkeeper of the Angelo Concert Hall in Jackson, denied admission to a black man, Hannibal C. “Ham” Carter, and Carter obtained a warrant for Donnell’s arrest.

Carter was a unique plaintiff. He came from an Indiana family of free blacks, captained a regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards, and was a Republican Party activist who had been an 1872 presidential elector for Ulysses S. Grant and had served a brief stint as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state. Representing Warren County in the Mississippi House of Representatives, he sponsored the bill and worked for its passage. The theater incident might have represented a deliberate test of the new law, a strategy civil rights activists pursued decades later.

Donnell allowed Carter and his companion, D. Webster, inside the hall but denied Carter’s request to sit in a section reserved for whites, arguing that the value of the tickets would drop if Carter were allowed to sit there. Carter summoned the sheriff of Hinds County, who then jailed Donnell until he paid a hundred-dollar fine. A judge agreed with Donnell’s treatment, so he appealed to the state’s highest court. The Mississippi Supreme Court heard Donnell v. State of Mississippi during its April 1873 term and then unanimously upheld the law and Donnell’s arrest. However, the Civil Rights Law of 1873 apparently fell into desuetude, a legal principle that renders a law invalid after a long period of nonenforcement. Although none of the amended statutes were explicitly repealed, they were not included in the 1880 Mississippi Code or in subsequent publications of state law. The 1888 Mississippi criminal statute that required all railroads to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and black travelers may have invalidated portions of the Civil Rights Law by declaring all prior conflicting statutes repealed.

Other southern states and the US Congress adopted or debated similar legislation around the time of Mississippi’s enactment of the Civil Rights Law. In 1870 Radical Republican senator Charles Sumner proposed the most well known of these measures, which Congress enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1875, known as the Force Act to its opponents. The US Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional by an 8–1 majority in a series of decisions known as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. Congress did not pass another civil rights bill until 1957. Many northern states filled the void with carbon copies of the civil rights bills adopted by Congress and the southern states in the 1870s, but these measures did not enjoy widespread popular support in either the North or the South and were not regularly enforced until after the modern civil rights movement.

Further Reading

  • Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South (1992)
  • Morroe Berger, Equality by Statute: The Revolution in Civil Rights (rev. ed. 1968)
  • David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970)
  • John Hope Franklin, ed. Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch (1970)
  • Mississippi Supreme Court, Mississippi Reports: Cases Argued and Decided, 48 vols. (1873)
  • James G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction (2nd ed. 1961)
  • US Commission on Civil Rights, Freedom to the Free: Century of Emancipation, 1863–1963 (1963)
  • Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (1965)
  • C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Civil Rights Law of 1873
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 13, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018