When city officials in Castle Hills, Texas, arrested Sylvia Gonzalez for criticizing her local government, she could sue them in federal court because of a statute called Section 1983. Through this statute, hundreds of thousands of Americans—including IJ clients Sylvia Gonzalez and James King—have sought to hold state and local officials accountable for unconstitutional conduct ranging from excessive force to violations of free speech rights and much more. Neglected for most of its history, Section 1983 has become “the sword of the Constitution”—and one of the most important weapons for justice in any constitutional lawyer’s arsenal.
Section 1983 originated in 1871 as Section 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act, a piece of what was then known as outrage legislation: laws intended to rein in the ongoing terror inflicted on black Americans and their allies in the post-Civil War South and to enforce the promises of the newly passed Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. Section 1 of the Act created a private cause of action against “any person who, under color of any law . . . shall subject, or cause to be subjected any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution of the United States.” In other words, it let individuals sue state and local officials in federal court for violations of their constitutional rights.
Yet, despite the enormous potential of those words, Section 1 lay dormant for 90 years, before bursting forth in 1961 to protect against government abuse and compensate its victims.
On Tuesday, April 20, from noon to 2:00 pm ET, 150 years to the day after President Grant signed Section 1983’s precursor into law, IJ’s Center for Judicial Engagement will host Outrage Legislation: Civil Rights & Section 1983 at 150 Years. This online event will bring together historians and legal scholars to discuss Section 1983’s origins and emergence as a central tool in the fight for constitutional rights, and will feature a roundtable with IJ attorneys and other prominent constitutional litigators on how they use Section 1983 in their fight for justice—and what the future holds in the face of current threats to government accountability.
This online event is free and open to all; we ask that you register at ij.org/event/outragelegislation by April 19.