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Jim Crow and the Courts Previous Next
Digital History ID 3180


After the Civil War ended in 1865, the court severely limited federal power to fight lynchings and private discrimination. When the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, it was expected that the Supreme Court would protect the rights of African Americans. But in the 30 years after the 14th Amendment was adopted, the Supreme Court restricted its scope. Eight years after the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled (in the Slaughter-House Cases) that the 14th Amendment's prohibition against states restricting the privileges or immunities of American citizens was not intended to protect citizens of a state against the legislative power of their state. The court made this 1873 ruling even though the 14th Amendment states in its first paragraph:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Supreme Court decision in the Slaughter-House Cases reduced the "privileges and immunity" clause to a dead-letter. A 5-4 majority held that the clause only protected the rights of national citizenship and placed no new obligations on the states. This ruling left African American residents of the South powerless against discriminatory actions by state legislatures.

In the Civil Rights Case (1883), involving an inn in Jefferson, Mo., which barred blacks, the court ruled that the 14th Amendment did not give Congress the power to ban private discrimination in public accommodations.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court said that the 14th Amendment "could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." It would not be until 1954 that a unanimous Supreme Court would rule that legal segregation violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

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