The Civil Rights Act of 1871

The last of the three Enforcement Acts, Congress passed during the years of 1870 and 1871 the Civil Rights Act of 1871 was drafted to protect the civil rights of Blacks. It expressly prohibited violence against Blacks the Act specifically targeted the Ku Klux Klan and other racially motivated parties.

President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law on April 20, 1871. President Grant had requested the law from Congress, in response to reports of violence against Blacks in the South. President Grant goals were to address the issues of racially motivated violence and abuse in the South; additionally, he wanted to have his powers as president defined more broadly by law before taking such action, believing that he needed additional powers if he intervened. The Act granted the president sweeping authority to suspend the right to habeas corpus and to utilize the federal government to intervene if States were engaging in unlawful behavior. Through the powers of the Third Enforcement Act, the Ku Klux Klan was practically and figuratively disbanded, to a point that they were no longer part of the political mainstream.

The Act made it unlawful for states or local government to treat Blacks differently, and allowed federal intervention when states violated their civil rights. Upon the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, federal authorities used their resources primarily, the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to enforce the Act in the Southern states, where racially motivated violence against Blacks were carried out by the Ku Klux Klan and others. As a direct result of the Act, many Klansmen and others were arrested by federal agents and tried for their crimes, which would have been very difficult, if not impossible, had the federal government not intervened.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 made state officials liable for the any deprivation of rights that they may have facilitated, in federal court. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan and others was actively engaged in intimidating Blacks and their supporters, because previous Civil Rights Acts had proven to be woefully inadequate. Specifically targeting the actions of the KKK, the Act made several of the Klansmen’s methods of intimidation federal offenses, thus allowing the federal government to use its policing powers to arrest and prosecute the Klansmen.

The Act also granted the president the power to call on the militia to counteract the actions of conspirators working against the federal government’s operations. It also precluded individuals suspected of participation in these conspiracies from serving as jurors on cases connected to Klan activity. The power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus was also granted to the president, if required.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 may be cited when an individual’s civil rights are being infringed upon by an agent or official of the state or local government unit. Modern applications of the law include instances of racially motivated police brutality, or discrimination by government agencies and their agents.