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All indicators--text, companion provisions, and legislative history--point unwaveringly to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1985(3)'s coverage of private conspiracies. That the statute was meant to cover private conspiracies does not mean that it was intended to apply to all tortious, conspiratorial interferences with the rights of others. The language requiring intent to deprive of equal protection, or equal privileges and immunities, means that there must be some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus behind the conspirators' action. The conspiracy must aim at a deprivation of the equal enjoyment of rights secured by the law to all.
Petitioners, Negro citizens of Mississippi, filed a damages action under 42 U. S. C. § 1985 (3), charging that respondents, white citizens of Mississippi, conspired to assault petitioners, who were passengers "travelling upon the federal, state, and local highways" in an automobile driven by one Grady, a citizen of Tennessee, for the purpose of preventing them "and other Negro-Americans, through . . . force, violence and intimidation, from seeking the equal protection of the laws and from enjoying the equal rights, privileges and immunities of citizens under the laws of the United States and the State of Mississippi," including rights to free speech, assembly, association, and movement, and the right not to be enslaved. The complaint alleged that pursuant to the conspiracy respondents, mistakenly believing Grady to be a civil rights worker, blocked the travellers' passage on the public highways, forced them from the car, held them at bay with firearms, and amidst threats of murder clubbed them, inflicting serious physical injury. Section 1985 (3) provides: "If two or more persons . . . conspire or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving . . . any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws [and] in any case of conspiracy set forth in this section, if one or more persons engaged therein do . . . any act in furtherance of the object of such conspiracy, whereby another is injured . . . or deprived of . . . any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States, the party so injured or deprived" may have a cause of action for damages against the conspirators. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, relying on Collins v. Hardyman, 341 U.S. 651, where the Court in order to avoid difficult constitutional questions, in effect construed § 1985 (3) to reach only conspiracies under color of state law. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Did 42 U.S.C.S § 1985(3) cover private conspiracies?
The Court reversed the lower court's judgment and held that 42 U.S.C.S § 1985(3) covered private conspiracies. The Court determined that the statute, on its face, fully encompassed the conduct of private persons. The court found nothing inherent in the statute that required the action working the deprivation to come from the state, and cited the failure to mention any such requisite as an important indication of congressional intent to speak in § 1985(3) of all deprivations of equal protection of the laws, and equal privileges and immunities under the laws, whatever their source. The Court found that petitioners' complaint stated a cause of action under § 1985(3), and determined that Congress had the constitutional power to enact the statute imposing liability under federal law for the conduct alleged in this complaint. The Court determined that Congress was within its powers under U.S. Const. amend XIII, § 2, in creating a statutory cause of action for African American citizens who had been the victims of conspiratorial, racially discriminatory, private action that had been aimed at depriving them of the basic rights that the law secured to all free men.