Civil Rights Act of 1957

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The Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill, was the first civil rights legislation enacted in the United States since Reconstruction.

Contents

History and passage

Early liberal senators, led by Paul Douglas, had long hoped for a bill guaranteeing open housing, accommodations, public transit, restaurants, etc. since the early 1950s, mainly in response to growing integrationist policies from the military in World War II and stronger demands for equal rights from minority groups. The senators desired these minority rights to be protected by the attorney general and Justice Department of the United States, and verdicts for infringement to be handed out by federal judges, not historically all-white Southern juries.

During the early 1950s, most Southern senators were in obvious opposition to a bill that promoted such sweeping change, owing to the beliefs and desires of their constituencies. The early demands of Northern senators encompassed demands for voting rights (the core of the bill), along with the ability of the federal judiciary to rule on infringements of the law. This latter portion of the bill gave it the so-called teeth, and was perhaps the portion of the bill most despised by the Southern members of the Senate.

However, by 1957, many Southern senators were willing to see a voting rights bill passed in a weaker form. This was largely in an effort to quell the desires of minorities and integrationists, and to preserve the Democratic majority in the Senate at that time (through capturing of the integrationist vote while still maintaining a stranglehold on Southern voting policies). Along with the majority of Southern senators who allowed the bill for that reason, there were some (such as Harry Byrd) who were of the opinion that voting for minorities should be federally protected, while others wished to propel Senate leader Lyndon Johnson to greater power, and for these reasons were supporters of a bill protecting (albeit weak) voting rights in the late 1950s.

During this time, many members of the senate, including Senator Lyndon Johnson, did not think that a wide-ranging bill could possibly pass the Senate without threat of or an actual filibuster, and owing to his presidential ambitions, Senator Lyndon Johnson did not seek a strong civil rights bill in 1957. This was due in part to strong opposition from Southern senators, who had successfully contained the possibility of effective civil rights legislation since the 1870s and the end of Reconstruction.

A Senate impasse developed when the vote for the bill with the federal judicial enforcement was being prepared. Aided by senators from the northwestern United States, who voted with the South because the South had agreed to vote for the Snake River Dam, the Southern senators sustained a filibuster for a few weeks. However, once moderate Northern members of the Senate limited the bill to voting rights and relented on jury trials, the South yielded and the filibuster was dropped.

Even so, after the bill had been limited to voting rights with the jury trial amendment, and the Southern majority had ended its filibuster, Senator Strom Thurmond remained a stronghold against the bill. His filibuster of the bill lasted 24 hours, 18 minutes, the United States Senate record for longest uninterrupted speech (filibuster). After Thurmond finished speaking, the vote was allowed, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed the Senate, and was soon signed by President Eisenhower to become law.

Content and legacy

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was largely ineffective in its enforcement and its scope. Statistical history notes that by 1960, slightly fewer blacks were voting in the South than had been in 1956. It did however open the door to later legislation that was effective in ending legal segregation and providing housing rights.

While the bill itself provided guarantees for African-American voting rights in the South in name only, it did so by establishing a voting-referee system. Federal district judges were charged with appointing referees to enroll voters in areas where the government had noted local authorities notably denying voting rights. Other sections of the bill required local authorities to maintain voting records for up to 22 months, in order for federal investigators to determine if any of the law had been violated. This, in addition to provisions making it illegal to interfere with federal court orders by threats of force (to subdue mob violence relating to then-recent school desegregation disputes), made the Civil Rights Act of 1957 a somewhat dismal failure compared to later acts and the hopes of the liberal North.

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