Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983): The Law and Its Context
Pursuant to the Union victory in the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) freed the slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) made them citizens with the rights to due process and equal protection under the law, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) guaranteed Black males the right to vote. In response to these constitutional amendments guaranteeing citizenship and related rights to former slaves, the KKK began a reign of terror against Black citizens that included threats, public whippings, arson, and lynchings. The intent, of course, was to frighten and intimidate Black citizens and keep them socially and economically subservient to Whites. Klansmen referred to their illegal and brutal tactics as “keeping Blacks in their place.”
To exacerbate the situation, many politicians in the postwar South were Klan supporters who were unwilling or unable to enforce the law and protect the safety and legal rights of Blacks. Further, some officials deliberately used the authority of their offices to help the KKK harass Black citizens. It was clear that quick and decisive action was necessary to protect the newly acquired constitutional rights of Blacks.
The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was passed by the 41st U.S. Congress to prevent public officials and the KKK in the South from violating the constitutional rights of former slaves. Also known as an act to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes, the 1871 act was authored by former Union general Benjamin Butler, Congressman from Massachusetts, who was universally hated by Southern Whites. Presently codified and known as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the original Civil Rights Act of 1871 included the 1870 Force Act and the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act and was intended to provide a civil remedy for Black citizens who were being abused by the KKK and sympathetic public officials.
The following statutory language warns public officials of the consequences of denying constitutional rights to others:
Every person who under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, Suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
The Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not create any new civil rights, but it did provide a civil remedy for abuses then being committed by the KKK and some public officials in the South. The act allowed individual citizens to sue state officials in federal courts for civil rights violations. In order to gain access to federal courts, plaintiffs had to demonstrate that state officials allegedly violated civil rights guaranteed in the Constitution or federal statutes.