On This Date: Ike Signed the First Civil Rights Act Since Reconstruction After the Longest Filibuster in History
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by Causes | 9.9.18
On September 9, 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction after it outlasted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate, paving the way for the civil rights bills of the 1960s.
Why did it come up?
After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education found racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional, Eisenhower wanted to signal his administration’s support for integration efforts amid staunch and often violent opposition by segregationists in the South.
The aim of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was to protect the voting rights of black Americans, who were disenfranchised by discriminatory registration rules like poll taxes and literacy tests enacted by southern Democrats. At the time, only about 20 percent of blacks were registered to vote.
What happened in Congress?
Eisenhower’s proposal found widespread support among Republicans and northern Democrats, but encountered stiff opposition in Congress from southern Democrats. The rift created problems for Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), who wanted to pass the bill with the support of civil rights advocates while weakening it to placate southern Democrats.
When the bill reached the Senate floor, it was filibustered by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, who delayed a vote by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
He read every U.S. state’s election laws in alphabetical order, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington’s Farewell Address in addition to discussing a wide variety of irrelevant topics. Thurmond also sat down at times, briefly left the floor to use the bathroom, and snuck into the Senate's cloakroom to eat a sandwich ― actions which could have brought the filibuster to an early end had other senators or aides been more alert.
Despite the record-setting filibuster, the final version of the bill passed Congress with majorities of both parties supporting it. In the House the vote was 285-126 (Republicans 167-19, Democrats 118-107) while the Senate advanced it 72-18 (Republicans 43-0, Democrats 29-18).
What did it do?
The bill created the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department and allowed federal prosecutors to seek injunctions and press charges for contempt of court in cases of voter intimidation or coercion.
It also allowed federal judges to hear civil rights cases with or without juries, and to ignore state jury selection laws. This was because in much of the South blacks were excluded from jury service by the same laws preventing them from voting and federal jury selection had been based on state rules.
Additionally, it created a six member Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch to gather information on the deprivation of citizens’ voting rights because of their color, race, religion, or national origin directly from disenfranchised citizens. It was to provide a report to Congress with citizens’ testimony, include relevant information about the laws involved and federal policies, and recommend changes before ceasing to exist after two years.
What was its impact?
President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 a little more than two weeks before he ordered the Army’s 101st Airborne Division (without its black soldiers) to go to Arkansas to ensure the integration and protection of nine African American students into Little Rock Central High School ― which foreshadowed the civil rights struggle to come.
It soon became apparent that southern Democrats’ efforts to weaken the bill had their intended effect, as black voting only increased by 3 percent three years after its enactment. In 1959, Eisenhower delivered a message to Congress that called for a new bill to address the deficiencies of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 by giving the Justice Dept. the power to inspect states’ election records to check for racial discrimination.
Eisenhower got his wish the following year, as the Civil Rights Act of 1960 required local authorities to maintain comprehensive voting records and extended the life of the Civil Rights Commission (which is still in operation). That bill set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was proposed by Eisenhower’s successor as president, John F. Kennedy, and signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson.
Through the various pieces of subsequent civil rights and voting rights legislation, the original goals of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 were furthered. According to data from our partners at USAFacts, a non-profit civic data initiative, voter turnout among blacks hit all-time highs of 60.8 percent in 2008 and 62 percent in 2012 ― which exceeded the overall voter turnout rate in those elections.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: NASA via Flickr / Public Domain)
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