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Early Civil Rights Cases Facing the Supreme Court

Grades: 9-12
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Lesson Summary


In this lesson, students analyze and compare important early Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights. Students also write an essay about dissenting opinions, including Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. This is the second of three lessons that comprise a unit on the Fourteenth Amendment. For the first and third lessons, see also The Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment Lesson Plan and Liberty of Contract Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website


  • Identify examples and analyze the importance of dissent in Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment
  • Describe important changes in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that reflected the changes happening in the United States in the second half of the 19th century

Grade Level:


Suggested Time

Approx. (1) 50 minute period

Media Resources


Before The Lesson

  • Prepare the necessary materials, including student handouts, which are found above. If possible, copy each of the handouts onto a different color of paper. This will help you and your students keep track of which handout they should be working with at a given time.
  • Download the video segments used in the lesson.
  • Prior to this lesson, students should have a basic understanding of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War. This background knowledge is not required, but it is helpful.
  • Consider inviting a lawyer, historian, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, or judge to help you teach this lesson.

The Lesson

Part I: Learning Activities

1. As an introduction to the lesson, review the background to the Civil War and the conditions that lead to the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

2. Play A New Kind of Justice QuickTime Video and ask students to consider the last part of the segment that focuses on the background for the passage of the Civil Right’s Act of 1875 and its most important provisions.

Ask students to describe the environment that created the need for the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Ask why they think this Act was necessary. You may want to use the following information for the follow-up discussion:

  • Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed to Blacks the same rights as Whites regarding contracts and property. Congress had also passed the Enforcement Acts of 1870 (referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Acts). These laws attempted to protect blacks from the efforts of Southern whites to keep them from voting.
  • Many Southerners made concerted efforts to block enforcement of these laws.

3. Distribute the The Civil Rights Act to each student and project its corresponding transparency. Ask volunteers to read aloud the language of Part I, sections 1 and 2. As students read, address vocabulary terms or other difficult passages and explain them.

Ask students:

  • What areas get special attention in Section 1?

Answer: Public accommodations such as inns, theaters, access to water or land, etc.

  • What is prohibited?

Answer: Denying people access to public accommodations based on their race or color

  • What can happen if you violate Section 1?

Answer: A person who violates the law can be convicted of a misdemeanor, fined between $500 and $1,000 (payable to the court), imprisoned between 30 days and one year, and required to pay the victim $500 for each offense.

4. Distribute The Civil Rights Cases of 1883. Review the directions with students.

Give students five to seven minutes to make their own decisions about the statements on the handout. Write the ending time on the board and circulate around the room to observe and assist students. When time is up, ask students to turn to the person next to them and discuss their decisions in pairs for a few minutes.

5. Review each of the statements and ask students how they classified the arguments. (These statements are actual quotes from the majority opinion written by Justice Joseph Bradley and the dissent written by Justice Harlan.)

Use the answer key below to assist with the discussion.

A = "U" -- This is from the opinion of Justice Joseph Bradley. It supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is unconstitutional.

B = "U" -- This is from the opinion of Justice Joseph Bradley. It supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is unconstitutional.

C = "C" -- This is from the opinion of Justice John Marshall Harlan. It supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is constitutional.

D = "C" -- This is from the opinion of Justice John Marshall Harlan. It supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is constitutional.

E = "C" -- This is from the opinion of Justice John Marshall Harlan. It supports the position that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is constitutional.

6. Next, tell students they’re going to watch a video segment that will tell them how the Court decided. Before they watch the segment, ask them to define the term "dissent" or "dissenting opinion."

Answer: It is the written opinion of one or more judges who disagree with the decision of the majority.

To help them focus while they view the segment, ask students to be ready to describe the key aspects of the Court’s decision and the views expressed by Justice John Marshall Harlan in his dissent.

Play The Civil Rights Cases QuickTime Video.

7. When the segment ends, follow up by asking students:

  • By 1883, what changes had taken place in terms of the country’s "reconstruction" efforts and in public sentiment about those efforts?
  • What are the key aspects of the Court's decision?

You may want to use the following as background information:

a. The Court determined that the law was unconstitutional and that each of the people listed in the cases lost.

b. The Supreme Court's majority opinion in this case struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on the basis that the Act exceeded the powers given to Congress under the Constitution.

c. One of the key aspects of the decision was that the Court said the Fourteenth Amendment protects citizens from the actions of the government, not from the actions of private individuals (such as people who own inns or who run railroads.)

  • Looking back at your answers for the Civil Rights Cases handout, which views (Unconstitutional or Constitutional) were from the majority decision and which were for the dissenting opinion?

Answer: The quotes marked with a "U" reflected the majority (winning) opinion. The Court declared the act unconstitutional. The "C"s were from Justin Harlan’s dissent.

  • On what grounds did Justice John Marshall Harlan dissent?

Answer: Harlan's dissent in the Civil Rights Cases says, we the Court protected the rights of slave masters and upheld congressional laws protecting slave masters. And now, when the Constitution has been amended to protect the rights of former slaves, we're striking down congressional laws designed to enforce that right. We are not treating the former slaves with the same kind of generosity that we once treated slave masters, and that's hypocrisy.

Part II: Cluminating Activity

1. Distribute and review the information and directions on the Reflections on Dissent handout.

2. Ask students to complete the essay and journal entry from the handout as homework or in class if time permits.

3. Once students have drafted their essays, they should share them with one or two of their peers, invite comments from their fellow students, and then revise and submit their final drafts.

4. Students should submit their journal entries directly to their teacher.

Check for Understanding

Conclude the lesson with a discussion of the following questions:

  • In what ways, did this Court’s decision in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases symbolize the end of the Reconstruction efforts?
  • What important distinction did the Court make when it clarified who the Fourteenth Amendment protects citizens from?

Project Credits

Contributor: WNET-grayscale

Funder: Booth Ferris Foundation-grayscale