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A History of the Civil Rights Act of 1871


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The time following the end of the civil war should have been one of celebration. A long and painful conflict had ended, and the terrible crime of slavery had finally been stopped in the US. Many optimistic Americans dubbed this time period “the progressive era" and began pushing for equal rights for different disenfranchised groups.

Sadly, rather than progressing smoothly forward, the country entered a volatile and often violent period of transition. In many southern (and some northern) states, backlash against newly freed slaves came in the form of difficulty finding gainful employment, discriminatory state laws known as “black codes, " and the sadistic hate group known as the Ku Klux Klan.

Although this activity was nominally illegal, the efforts of state government officials to stop them were ineffective at best, nonexistent at worst. Some governors and other local politicians were willing to turn a blind eye to the brutality going on around; some even participated in it. Politicians who tried to address the problems in their jurisdictions often faced intense opposition. When North Carolina governor William Woods Holden deployed the state militia against the Klan in 1870, his constituents thanked him by impeaching him in 1871.

Clearly state governments were failing to uphold the rights of their citizens. One problem was that there while there were federal laws guaranteeing certain rights, the enforcement of these laws was generally done on a state level. Individuals who were not being helped by their state had little or no recourse.

Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Franklin Butler proposed the solution in February of 1871. He introduced a new piece of federal legislation called the Ku Klux Klan act, also commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This act gave the federal government the legal ability to intervene whenever people's federal rights were being violated by their state governments. It would also allow individuals to file suits against state politicians who practiced illegal forms of discrimination.

The bill was controversial. Some politicians claimed not to be convinced that violence in the South was bad enough to make the bill necessary. Two events swayed most congressmen to their decision to support the bills.

First, South Carolina formally requested federal troops to come to their state, claiming that their resources were inadequate to address the problems they were having. Then news reached the capital of a riot breaking out in Meridian, Mississippi. Reportedly a black state representative was driven from a courthouse and forced to hide in the forest to save his own life.

Since its passing, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 was strengthened civil rights across the US by protecting rights for people who are in the minority, making it difficult for them to simply vote to change discriminatory laws.

For more information about the Act, contact Austin employment discrimination attorneys Melton & Kumler.

Joseph Devine


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