OK readers, this is LONG. But I think it’s interesting and informative. It gives some insight on the politics of the civil rights movement, and how non-violent efforts (always televised) were able to influence government. I hope you will take the time to read it all, even if it takes a while. Just come back to it, digest it. And learn from it.
And also, if you have a minute, write back and tell me what you think.
In US history, there have been 11 Civil Rights Acts. Three were during Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 extended the rights of emancipated slaves by stating that any person born in the United States regardless of race is a U.S. citizen. It was overridden by Andrew Jackson, and then followed by the 14th Amendment. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was intended to prohibit ethnic violence against African-Americans. (Obviously worked well… ) and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibiting discrimination in “public accommodations” was found unconstitutional in 1883.
No effort was made my Congress to protect African-Americans from discrimination until 1957.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957, signed into law by Eisenhower, was primarily a voting rights bill intended to ensure that all Americans could exercise their right to vote. But all it did was set up a Civil Rights Commission in the Executive Branch to gather information on deprivation of citizens’ voting rights, and that Commission only had a two year life. Even though it was intended to have provisions to prosecute those who discriminated against African-Americans trying to vote, it had no teeth. This would not surprise anyone as it was so greatly protested. Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) pointed out that there was already a Federal Statute that prosecuted citizens who denied or intimidated voters at voting booths under a fine and/or imprisonment, but that the civil rights bill then under consideration could legally deny trial by jury to those that continued to do so. (As if Southern jury trials were fair…) In fact, Thurmond filibustered the bill for over 24 hours, droning on about anything he could, from state election laws to his grandmother’s biscuit recipe.
The Civil Rights Act of 1960, also passed by Eisenhower, extended the Commission another two years, and established the right of the federal government to inspect voter registration polls. It had a number of other interesting provisions. You could not obstruct a court order. You could not flee a state for damaging or threatening to damage property by fire or explosives. But the majority of the Act was around voting, including registration, casting a ballot and having the ballot counted. The act was weak in that the onus on proving discrimination was so taxing. For example, For example, to win a discrimination lawsuit against a state that maintained a literacy test, the Department needed to prove that the rejected voter-registration applications of racial minorities were comparable to the accepted applications of whites. This involved comparing thousands of applications in each of the state’s counties in a process that could last months. The Department’s efforts were further hampered by resistance from local election officials, who would claim to have misplaced the voter registration records of racial minorities, remove registered racial minorities from the electoral rolls and resign so that voter registration ceased. Moreover, the Department often needed to appeal lawsuits several times before the judiciary provided relief because many federal district court judges opposed racial minority suffrage. Thus, between 1957 and 1964, the African-American voter registration rate in the South improved marginally even though the Department litigated 71 voting rights lawsuits
It is interesting to note that most of the civil rights efforts of the 1950’s and early 1960’s were around ending segregation, not voting. Brown v. Board of Education had been won in in 1954. In 1955, the Supreme Court banned segregation in parks and playgrounds. Emmett Till was killed, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. In 1957 the National Guard was called out to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. In 1958, Bethel Baptist Church was bombed. The Greensboro sit-ins took place in 1960, in 1961, the first Freedom Riders left DC on a Greyhound bus. And in 1963, the March on Washington was held as well as the Children’s Crusade which televised thousands of children being hosed, sic’d on by police dogs, and ultimately arrested. So, in my humble opinion, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an indication that Southern Democrats had way too much power in Washington, and the North was afraid to do the right thing.
Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally came into being, in part as a response to the Children’s Crusade. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It ended segregation in public places, schools, federally-assisted programs and banned employment discrimination. It also gave the federal courts and the attorney general the power to enforce all aspects of the law. The bill was proposed by President Kennedy shortly before he died, and when Johnson became president, he said it was a number one priority that it pass. As a result, it survived strong opposition from southern members of Congress such as Strom Thurmond who said: This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the President has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason. This is the worst civil-rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress”, and from Senator Barry Goldwater: “You can’t legislate morality.” Nonetheless, the bill was finally passed, and was then signed into law. Johnson signed the Act with at least 75 pens, which he handed out to congressional supporters of the bill such as Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen and to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins. The first and only time that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met was at the signing of the bill.
I want to take a moment to say that the bill – which was still called “weak” by some civil rights leaders, because it did not include a number of provisions deemed essential including protection against police brutality, ending discrimination in private employment, or granting the Justice Department power to initiate desegregation or job discrimination lawsuits – was amazing in conferring power to the federal government to prosecute anyone who did not abide by the law. Much of the Act detailed exactly how this would be done, and what a person could expect for not complying with the law. By putting the power in the hands of the federal government, the Act bypassed all of the states’ claims to be able to enact their own Jim Crow laws. I took some time to read it, and offer the link for anyone who is interested. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=97&page=transcript
Interestingly enough in the same year, the 24th Amendment was ratified, abolishing the poll tax, which originally had been instituted in 11 southern states after Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor blacks to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was yet another act to prohibit racial discrimination in voting. It was the result of a push from the SCLC and SNCC to address voting rights, followed by a determination by Johnson have “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can.” after Democrats won the House and Senate. In off-year elections. (Sound familiar??? Think Tea Party…) King was initiating countless marches in Selma and Montgomery to press for voting rights. Malcolm X gave a speech in Selma about rejecting the non-violent approach – it was designed to pressure whites into wanting to support King. The march in Selma, the one that was repeated in 2015 with Obama in attendance, was called Bloody Sunday, was televised, and featured police spraying tear gas into the crowd and trampling marchers. A month later, Johnson televised a joint session of Congress pressing for expansive voting rights legislation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation, again, not because of its stated intent, but because of the provisions it makes for the federal government to enforce the law. State and local governments can’t impose any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Literacy testes are banned. There is a special provision that applies to certain jurisdictions which prohibits them from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the Attorney General or US District Court. The bill authorized the assignment of federal examiners to register voters, and of federal observers to monitor elections, to covered jurisdictions that were found to have engaged in egregious discrimination. However, the bill set these special provisions to expire after five years. As a result, Congress enacted major amendments to the Act in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006. Each amendment coincided with an impending expiration of some or all of the Act’s special provisions.
The last (finally) civil rights act to be passed during the civil rights movement (1954 -1968) was the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act which provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed or national origin and made it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone [seeking housing] by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin. Again, the law was designed to put teeth into previous laws, this time around the sale, rental, and financing of housing, along with . coercing, threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a person’s enjoyment or exercise of housing rights. A few other things were tacked onto the act around Indian Civil Rights, and a rider to make it a felony to “travel in interstate commerce…with the intent to incite, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot”.
Sadly, the bill was contested by both Republicans and Democrats, because, according to Senator Walter Mondale: A lot of [previous] civil rights [legislation] was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from [Alabama Governor] George Wallace…This came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal.” Nonetheless, between the 1967 “ghetto” riots of “The Long Hot Summer” (159 of them! Could it be the impetus behind Spike Lee’s movie, Do The Right Thing? Maybe…) and the civil unrest following King’s assassination, Johnson was able to push the bill through.