"Mr. Sumner's Civil Rights Bill"
Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1871, page 1218 (Editorial)
Mr. Sumner’s supplementary Civil Rights bill receives the usual amount of smiles and wonder at its "fanaticism." But a man who has sat in the Senate of the United States for twenty years, and who, having seen Breckinridge in the chair, and having been smitten to the floor by the bullies of slavery, now sees Schuyler Colfax presiding, and in the chamber around him a vast majority of Republican Senators of a country in which war has abolished slavery, probably smiles compassionately at the contemptuous smiles of those who think principle fanaticism, and consistency impracticability. Mr. Sumner’s bill contemplates the prohibition to all public institutions regulated by law in this country—such as hotels, railroad cars, etc.—of the recognition of distinctions which the law has abolished. Those who think that it is foolish to attempt to make people associate with those whom they dislike, and whose conclusive argument against emancipation and equal rights was, "How would you like your daughter to marry a nigger?" may, however, be comforted. They are not to be compelled to marry their daughters to any body, nor to invite distasteful guests to their tables. But those who hold certain grants under the law for the public benefit are not to be suffered to discriminate arbitrarily against a certain part of the public.

The keeper of a hotel, for instance, is bound to furnish entertainment to all orderly applicants, unless he has reason to suspect dishonest intention. He can not lawfully refuse a guest because of a whim against his blue eyes or his straight hair. He may, indeed, keep a temperance house, to which prohibitionists will naturally resort; or he may announce his preference of Baptists or Presbyterians as guests. But if a Methodist traveler applies in good faith for entertainment, the host can not turn him away because he is not a Baptist. Neither can he refuse a guest, because he is an Irishman or a German, because he is of a fair complexion or of a dark, if there be nothing suspicious in his appearance or conduct. But the Baptist and Presbyterian, the naturalized Irishman or the German, the man of fair or dark complexion, have no more rights under the law, as citizens, than the colored man.

Those who think that they have an antipathy to colored persons may be correct, but it is evidently not an antipathy which extends to the waiter who brings them their dinner. And there are many persons to whom the Irish citizen is not agreeable. And to the warm sectarian of any kind the Jew or the atheist is very repugnant. But we do not therefore permit them to be excluded form places of common public resort. If we did so, we should nullify our own laws and insult their spirit. Suppose that we had in all public places, in churches or in halls, a coop in a corner for the Portuguese or the West Indian foreigner who might stray to our shores? It would be a barbarous folly. And if it were the native citizen descended from Portugal or the West Indies, the folly would be only the more conspicuous. If it became a practice, so flagrant an outrage upon the equality of the citizen guaranteed by the fundamental law should be prohibited under penalties in the common interest. For the equality that we assert by law, the law must protect.

That is what Mr. Sumner’s bill proposes. It forbids distinctions founded upon a system of caste which the law has abolished. It prohibits, within its sphere, making an American citizen a pariah because of his color. It aims to lift from the colored race as much as possible of the consequences of the curse which civilization has imposed upon it. If we meant to keep the people of that race an outcast class, we had no right to make them equal citizens. But having made them so, we can not keep them outcasts without infinite harm to ourselves. However, we need have no fear of appalling results. The colored citizens are not obtrusive. They are not disposed to go where they are not wanted. But what man of honor does not burn with indignation to see a polite and quiet colored passenger refused a place in a car or a steamboat from which a drunken and disgusting white traveler is not expelled? The fundamental principle of this republic is that every citizen shall be equal before the law. And whoever smiles at Mr. Sumner’s bill smiles at the American principle.

Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1871, page 1218 (Editorial)


U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had introduced his new civil rights bill in every Congressional session since 1870, and in his Harper’s Weekly editorials George William Curtis repeatedly advocated its passage. The bill intended to outlaw racial segregation in all public accommodations regulated by law, such as hotels, public schools, theaters, steamships, and railroads.

Senator Sumner died in March 1874, and Republicans like Curtis insisted that the civil rights bill be enacted in his honor. The outgoing Republican Congress eventually passed the bill and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law on March 1, 1875. The ratified version of the bill, however, had removed the clause protecting public schools. Curtis valued education so highly that he reversed himself to oppose the final bill as too weak. In 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.


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