Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983): Impact and Evolution

Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983)

Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983): The Law and Its Context

Under provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1871, federal troops, rather than state militias, were used to enforce the law in the South. In addition, Klansmen were prosecuted in federal courts, where juries often included Black citizens, rather than in state courts where juries were invariably all White and not likely to indict, much less convict, a Klansman. Hundreds of violent Klansmen were fined or imprisoned under the 1871 act, and KKK violence decreased significantly in the South. Although the KKK was successful in delaying the extension of voting rights to former slaves under the Fifteenth Amendment, Klan membership and activity declined sharply after 1871, and the KKK did not resurface in force until 1915.

For most of its 135-year history, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983) prompted relatively few lawsuits, because attorneys did not view the statute as a reliable check on the behavior of public officials. However, perceptions in the legal profession changed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Monroe v. Pape (1961). In Monroe, the Court listed three purposes of the Civil Rights Act of 1871

  1. to override certain kinds of state laws, 
  2. to provide plaintiffs with a federal remedy when state law was inadequate, and 
  3. to provide a federal remedy where the state remedy, although adequate in theory, was not adequate in practice. 

Monroe prompted renewed interest in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983) as the basis for civil rights legislation. For example, the act was invoked in subsequent civil rights actions including the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and the 1965 murder of Viola Luizzo. Klan members were allegedly involved in the murders of all four civil rights activists.

Today, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 is often invoked whenever a state official allegedly violates a constitutional right. It is now perhaps the most powerful legal precedent used by federal courts to protect constitutional rights. Seldom cited as a basis for litigation until the mid-1960s, the act then became an effective weapon against state officials for every conceivable cause. Coverage under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Section 1983) is limited in two ways. First, it imposes liability on public officials only for actions carried out “under color of [law], custom, or usage.” Second, it imposes liability only on the defendant official rather than the state, and monetary damages may be levied directly against the defendant, who is sued in his or her person for violating the constitutional rights of another individual.

Section 1983 is often cited as the basis for federal suits against law enforcement officers and public officials who are charged with enforcing and administering the law as part of their assigned duties. Because all public officials, including school superintendents and college presidents, act under color of the law, custom, or usage, all are potential defendants in Section 1983 actions. Furthermore, they must be sued in their individual capacities in accordance with Section 1983 provisions—a chilling prospect for professionals dependent on their careers and salaries for economic security.