Civil Rights Cases of 1883

Possessing power has a tendency to cause individuals to view themselves differently. Sometimes viewing themselves differently means that people abuse their power. They might think they are above the law, for example. They might think they are "better" than others.

Political cartoonists help such individuals to realize that, at the end of the day, they are "just people," like everyone else. They just happen—for a time (sometimes short, sometimes long)—to have a powerful job.

Puck was a magazine that became a place to remind powerful individuals they were just people. Known for its biting, relevant political cartoons, Puck's illustrators were not afraid to "take on" the highest-ranking people if they were doing a lousy job.

The Library of Congress has more than 2,500 cartoons which were published between 1882 and 1915. Woody Woodis, who worked on digitizing those illustrations, tells us more about Puck:

While Puck began as a general humor magazine, it became noted for its colorful covers and double-page centerfolds that featured the foibles and machinations of politicians, robber barons, and other prominent figures.

In the early 1900s, the magazine scaled back its political punch and began to feature illustrations of fashionably dressed, lovely “Gibson Girl” women, hoping to attract a broader share of the market.

One of the targets of Puck's political cartoons was the U.S. Supreme Court. The High Court was very busy, during the last part of the 19th century. Some of its decisions—like Plessy v Ferguson—led to long-lasting, negative consequences.

Joseph Ferdinand Keppler (1838-1894) created this illustration which was published, by Keppler & Schwarzmann, in a Puck issue (v. 18, no. 457) on December 9, 1885. It depicts the Supreme Court justices in a state of disarray.

Keppler gave his illustration a sharply worded caption:

It [the Supreme Court] is unequal to the ever-increasing labor thrust upon it - will Congress take prompt measures for the relief of the people?

The Library of Congress provides further context by summarizing this illustration’s message:

Illustration shows Supreme Court justices "Woods, Blatchford, Harlan, Gray, Miller, Field, Waite, Bradley [and] Matthews" around a table, struggling to keep up with an overload of cases piling up on the floor, delivered "From the Lower Courts" by mail clerks entering on the left, as well as "Cases Unadjudicated 1880-1882" and "Cases Unadjudicated 1883-", and a cabinet labeled "1885" along the wall in the background.

One of the things these very busy Justices did (in 1883) was to find that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which gave civil rights to African Americans) was unconstitutional. There was hardly a dispute between the Justices since the decision was 8-1.

Known as The Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the decision against African-Americans held that "unlike acts of the state, private acts of racial discrimination are private wrongs that the national government is powerless to correct by means of civil rights legislation." As a result of this case, the five African-Americans who were denied the same type of accommodations as white people—who then sued to enforce their constitutional rights—lost their cases.

For African-Americans, this decision meant that in the private (non-governmental) world, people of color could be denied all sorts of equal treatment (in restaurants, in hotels, in schools, etc.). The Court's decision helped to fuel the growth of discriminatory "Jim Crow Laws."

Click on the image for a better view of Keppler’s illustration (which Puck published as a centerfold).

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 13, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Aug 24, 2019

Media Credits

Illustration by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, published in "Puck" on 9 December 1885, online via the Library of Congress. Public Domain.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Civil Rights Cases of 1883" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 13, 2016. Jan 26, 2020.
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