Debate and Compromise: The Civil Rights Act of 1875
Amid the voluminous archives of 19th Century civil rights history America is record of the passage of a civil rights bill introduced by a Senator from Massachusetts by the name of Charles Sumner. Senator Sumner introduced this bill in every congressional session from 1870 until his death in 1874 and it was not until after Sumner's death that President Ulysses S. Grant finally signed the bill into law in 1875. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was later deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, was a precursor to the landmark civil rights cases of Plessy v. Ferguson and eventually the infamous case of Brown v. The Board of Education. The nature of the congressional debates over Reconstruction and leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 revealed the dominance of the Radical Republicans and the determination of the Southern Democrats. And so, in addition to being a bill intended to end inequality among the races, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 represented the post-Civil War power struggle between the states and their attempt to establish compromise.
Early in the Civil War, Reconstruction emerged as an inevitable issue and as Northern victory neared, the issue attracted more and more attention. By January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in "rebel-held" areas, the Northern objective shifted from preserving the Union to rebuilding the South (Kolchin).
Central to the Northern view on how the South should be reconstructed was the conviction that the South should be remade into a society based on free labor, equal rights, and the republican form of government guaranteed by the Constitution. This was the view held by the Republican Party, which dominated Congress, partly because the South had withdrawn its representatives from Congress after secession. The Northern Republicans who took c...