April 9, 1866.
One hundred and fifty four years ago, the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 was passed into law.
The American Civil War began in 1861. Following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, many southern states began to leave the Union due to his eagerness to end slavery and increase Northern industrialization. Two years following the start of the war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This document freed all slaves, even those in the Confederate territory. Two years after, the Civil War ended in a Northern Union victory. Lincoln was assassinated and the abolition of slavery was offically added to the American Constitution in the thirteenth amendment.
This begs the question, what is so significant about the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 if slavery had already been abolished? If slaves were already free, what more did they need?
The rights of an American Citizen.
In 1857, the Supreme Court reviewed the case Dred Scott vs. Sandford. Dred Scott was a slave claiming to be freed by the Missouri Compromise of 1850. His master disagreed on the account of his freedom. As a result, Scott sued him for his freedom. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it ruled that black people, free or no, did not have any rights of an American citizen. This meant that black people didn’t have the right to bring a case to a court and Scott’s case was rendered invalid.
This is what makes the Civil Rights Act of 1866 so significant. A mere nine years later, the first federal law granting blacks the rights of an American citizen were enacted. It defined who and what a citizen was capable of and affirmed that all citizens were equal under the law. All persons born in America were considered citizens of the United States. All citizens could hold contracts, bring a case to court, give evidence in court, and could own personal property in all manners.
Even more significant is that the president at the time, Andrew Johnson, vetoed the bill and it was passed anyway.
Black people were finally Americans.