Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution dramatically transformed American society during the Reconstruction era. The amendments abolished slavery, established the concepts of birthright citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and granted all men the right to vote, regardless of color. For most members of the Republican Party, enforcing legal and political equality extended the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all races. These Reconstruction Amendments provided a tangible answer to the question of freedpeople’s status in American society following emancipation. Many moderates and conservatives in both parties, however, made a distinction between legal and political equality—which enabled men of all backgrounds the chance to participate in republican governance on an equal basis—and “social equality,” a shorthand term to describe the debate over racial integration in everyday life. These political leaders earnestly warned against any legislation covering the latter. They warned that such legislation would promote government overreach and the forced integration of black and white Americans in social situations.[1]

Not all Republicans felt this way about “social equality,” especially its black membership. The debate first emerged after Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner introduced a bill on May 13, 1870, that would have outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation, facilities, schools, cemeteries, and in jury selection. The bill created a firestorm. As one Democratic newspaper in McConnelsville, Ohio, complained, Sumner’s legislation meant that “every man, woman and child, of the Anglo-Saxon or Caucasian race, going forth into public, must expect to encounter at every turn the man of African descent.” Anyone who understood “the superiority of the white over the black race” had a duty to fight “social equality with an inferior race.”[2] Sumner and his radical counterparts unsuccessfully lobbied another four years to get enough votes to pass a Civil Rights bill. During these debates, however, one unlikely ally emerged when Congressman Charles Hays of Alabama passionately spoke in favor of Sumner’s legislation. Hays’s eloquent speech to the House of Representatives on January 31, 1874, outraged the white South and troubled conservatives throughout the country, but his powerful challenge to bigotry and white supremacy in American society continues to resonate today.

Alabama Congressman Charles Hays. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hays was born in 1834 to a prosperous family in the black belt region of Greene County, Alabama. After his father died at a young age, Hays built upon his inheritance and expanded his investments in both land and slaves. By 1860—still at the tender age of 26—Hays owned more than two thousand acres of prime cotton-growing land, almost one hundred enslaved African Americans, and an estate valued at more than $112,000. He was a reluctant secessionist when Alabama first declared itself out of the Union, but after the firing at Fort Sumter he joined the Confederacy and eventually attained the rank of major.[3]

After the war Hays successfully sought a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and took a pragmatic approach to politics. More interested in a quick end to federal oversight of Reconstruction than rehashing the results of the Civil War, he joined the Republican Party. According to biographer William Warren Rogers, Jr., he soon became a prominent member of the Union League in Greene County. Hays was then elected to Congress in 1869 with strong support from black and white party members in Alabama’s 4th Congressional district.[4]

While Hays initially favored a speedy return to civilian rule in Alabama, the acts of political terrorism being committed by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War horrified him. He gradually moved towards the radical wing of the party. Hays supported enforcement legislation to punish the KKK and came to believe that Sumner’s push for racial integration in social situations was justified.[5] Although a terrible economic depression raged through the country in 1874 and dominated both newspaper headlines and Congressional debate, Hays nevertheless believed that the time was right to push the civil rights issue forward.

As Hays began his remarks to the House, he lamented that “passion and prejudice have ruled the hour” in the South. “I shall receive the censure of those who sit and worship in the temples of a dead past,” but it was his sacred duty to promote “liberty and freedom” for his black constituents in Alabama and elsewhere. Citing his former experience as a slaveholder, Hays stated that he knew African Americans were hard workers who were oppressed not because of their natural inferiority—which was a lie—but because of the “storms of hate” heaped upon them by white racists. “Newspapers, politicians, demagogues, and inciters of sectional hate” were promoting a false portrait of what a civil rights bill would bring to American society, according to Hays. In his view the purpose of such a bill “[did] not force anything” on white society other than “the right of the colored man to be the equal of the white man.”[6]

Hays then attacked the notion that black and white Americans could not associate together or enjoy the same rights and privileges. He noted that “thousands of the most intelligent men of the South” who now opposed the civil rights bill “were born and raised upon the old plantations. Childhood’s earlier days were passed listening to the lullaby song of the negro nurse, and budding manhood found them surrounded by slave association.” In other words, blacks and whites had intermingled and even lived together in the days of slavery without any fearful talk of “social equality.” What had changed? “Now that they are free and receiving the enlightenment of education,” the freedpeople were seen as a threat to the social order of white supremacy and “not entitled to the protection of society,” according to critics of the bill.[7]

“These Few Precepts in Thy Memory,” a political cartoon about the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by artist Thomas Nast, 1875. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

Unlike many of his white contemporaries, Hays acknowledged that the South—indeed, even his own remarkable fortune—had been built on the backs of the enslaved. They had “molded our fortunes, built our railroads, erected our palatial mansions, and toiled for our bread” without compensation. Similar to other Lost Cause proponents at the time, Hays celebrated the “faithful slaves” (including his own) who stayed on plantations and refused to run away during the Civil War. But he again differed from prevailing notions by expressing his sincere “debt of gratitude to them” and stressing the importance of righting a historic wrong. In supporting civil rights, Hays pledged to do his part to “pay the debt” that had been incurred through generations of unrequited toil for the benefit of himself and his ancestors. He concluded his speech by pointing out that the white south’s continued resistance to federal authority was largely responsible for the creation of more civil rights legislation. They “would not listen to reason . . . [had] rushed blindly on in the wonted paths of prejudice and hate,” and failed to understand that “the past is gone, and the present is upon us.” Meeting the needs of the present ultimately meant granting “to our colored fellow-citizens every right that belongs to a freeman, and every privilege that is guaranteed them by the Constitution.”[8]

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed by Congress and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant following the death of Charles Sumner. It would be the last civil rights law passed by Congress until 1957. The law was poorly enforced and widely criticized, however, and in 1883 the Supreme Court declared in the Civil Rights Cases that the law was unconstitutional. The court held that the federal government only had the authority to ban acts of discrimination by state and local governments, not private individuals and business owners.[9] Nevertheless, the legacy of Charles Hays’s words would endure and his arguments were utilized in future fights for civil rights in America.


[1] Allen Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 88-89.

[2] “The Negro in Congress,” The Conservative, June 3, 1870; U.S. House of Representatives, “Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood – Legislative Interests,” U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, accessed August 2, 2018,

[3] William Warren Rogers, Jr., Black Belt Scalawag: Charles Hays and the Southern Republicans in the Era of Reconstruction (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993), 1-13.

[4] Rogers, 14-44.

[5] Rogers, 62-64.

[6] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[7] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[8] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096-1097 (1874).

[9] The provision banning racial discrimination in public education was removed from the final version of the bill. For the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, see Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). The full text of the decision can be seen at Harvard University, “Civil Rights Cases (1883),” 2018, accessed August 3, 2018.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

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