Towards Progress

Race and the Second Reconstruction

As Americans, we must realize and accept the fact that the responsibility of worldwide leadership carries with it a concomitant duty for providing the world with examples of freedom and liberty for all in our daily lives. Any intolerance or discrimination or deprivation of constitutionally guaranteed rights and privileges resound and reverberate throughout the globe… 

-House Report 291, accompanying HR 6127, the Civil Rights Act of 1957

It seems that neither Thaddeus Stevens nor Charles Sumner ever advocated any such thing as is found in the present proposed legislation, which has the effect of making the United States the parent guardian of minority groups, and the pursuer of all of the other citizens in the United States…

Why swap the harmony and unity prevailing over this country today for proposals that will undoubtedly bring chaos, dissension, and strife into this land so rich with promise for the future, that promise being predicated upon a glorious past. 

House Minority Report on HR 6127, 1957

Washington and the South

The Civil Rights Movement had reached full strength by the mid 1950s. African Americans clamored for their political and social rights, and refused to be relegated to an inferior status any longer. Dozens of national and regional organizations sprung up, each pursuing their own strategies—some non-violent, some militant—to win civil rights from African Americans. The NAACP, local trade unions, the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference and countless others organized African American citizens to march, rally, protest, boycott, sit-in, write petitions, and sue, challenging the system of Jim Crow. Slowly but surely, the momentum behind the civil rights movement placed overwhelming pressure on Americas system of racial discrimination, and real change stated to occur. 

In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most important decisions to date: Brown v. Board of Education. Overturning the infamous precedent of “separate but equal” established in Plessey v. Ferguson, the decision in Brown signaled that the Court was willing to advance the cause of civil rights. The decision had come as the result of a well-developed and highly organized strategy of litigation on the part of the NAACP—one that would continue to bear fruit over the next several decades.  

Desegregating Education

African Americans set to the task of desegregating schools and institutions of higher learning. They encountered significant resistance: Southern governors, mayors, and state legislatures refused to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education, and the federal troops had to help enforce the ruling (and subsequent ones that confirmed it) in reluctant states. Many states developed a policy known as “massive resistance” in opposition to desegregation, shutting down school systems entirely so that they could not be integrated. Sheriffs arrested and beat black protesters and their white allies, and teachers treated black students with outright scorn. 

As fierce as the opposition to desegregation was, Brown v. Board of Education was a major victory for the Civil Right movement, and the violence in the South only served to focus more national attention on the issue. African Americans kept up the pressure surrounding the issue of voting rights, understanding that the franchise was key to securing other civil rights. “Once Negroes start voting in large numbers,” reported one black newspaper, “the Jim Crow laws will be endangered.” “Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will,” declared the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to a crowd of nearly 30,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1957.

Resistance to African American voting was as vigorous as ever, and the opposition to integration across the South only underscored the lack of political rights enjoyed by the black community. Seven states in the South had literacy tests and five states had poll taxes on the books through the 1950s: 

Literacy Tests: 

Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia

Poll Taxes:

Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia

The discriminatory way that these laws were administered has reached its peak—most states included grandfather clauses that exempted whites, and it was virtually impossible for a black citizen to obtain a poll tax receipt or even a bill to pay it in the first place. 

In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi began to use an even more robust “understanding test,” again with a grandfather clause, that allowed white registrars to fail potential black voters for almost any reason. Blacks who wanted to try to vote in Alabama had to find a white citizen willing to “vouch” for their good character, and a 1960 in Louisiana extended disenfranchisement those who committed petty crimes—so-called “black crimes” like refusing to leave a movie theater or participating in a sit-in—to the extreme. Everywhere in the South, minor paperwork errors were used to take African Americans off of voting rolls, and registrars often simply refused to register black voters, certain they would face no consequence. As always, intimidation and retribution remained one of the most powerful forces that kept African Americans from voting. Those who did could lose their jobs, face foreclosure or debt collection, or be beaten and sometimes killed. 

The opposition in the South to African American civil rights was strong enough that the movement’s only hope of succeeding was with the backing of the federal government. Local governments could not be changed on the strength of black protest alone. The regional split in the Democratic Party, however, would make that a difficult proposition. Liberal Democrats in Congress favored the implementation of the recommendation of Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, now more than ten years old. But they had to contend with the powerful Southern Democrats—nicknamed the “Dixiecrats,” who were still firmly entrenched in Congressional leadership positions. Though not nearly as stark, the Republicans were also divided—some wanted to stay true to their party’s traditional pro civil rights principles, while others hoped the party could win some support in the South to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats. In this divided state, Congress seemed reluctant to lend strong support to the cause of civil rights.