Towards Progress

The Civil Rights Act of 1957

Congress did take some action in 1957, when it passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. The measure was a compromise bill that did little to tangibly advance protections of Civil Rights. It was so weak that it was criticized by many civil rights leaders. But it did have several key features that would lay the groundwork for future efforts: 

  1. Created a national Commission on Civil Rights 
  2. Elevated the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department to a full-fledged a division 
  3. Authorized the Attorney General to seek injunctions and file civil suits in voting rights cases

Essentially, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 sought to strengthen the ability of the 

Justice Department to respond to violations of voting rights—including violations of the 15th Amendment—but it had very little actual impact. Suits were slow in coming, and between 1956 in 1960, only 200,000 additional blacks were registered to vote in South. Congress passed a second Civil Rights Act in 1960 that was slightly stronger, but it too did not spur much in the way of real progress. 

The creation of the bipartisan Commission on Civil Rights was perhaps the most important outcome of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. It was to report to Congress and the president in two years time with recommendations after an aggressive set of hearings and investigations into civil rights matters. The Commission offered several key recommendations, including the appointment of federal registrars to register voters in the South. But more importantly, it called for a constitutional amendment that “would give the right to vote every citizen who meets a state’s age and residency requirement, and who is not legally confined at the time of registration or election.” Interestingly enough, the language proposed by the Commission bore a strong resemblance to the broad version of the 15th Amendment proposed by Henry Wilson in the 1860s.

Meanwhile, the violence and conflict was intensifying in the South. The now-famous sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 set off yet another wave of protests and demonstrations against Jim Crow, and activists boycotted bus systems in Birmingham and other major cities across the south. Voting was a major demand of many of the demonstrators. In 1963, 80,000 African-Americans in Mississippi participated in a mock gubernatorial election, echoing the strategy employed by disenfranchised Rhode Islanders during the Dorr War. 

The pressure mounted through the early part of the 1960s. In 1963, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first president from the South since Reconstruction. (Wilson was born in Virginia, but served as Governor of New Jersey prior to being elected President.) Johnson was reelected in 1964 with an enormous popular vote. His unique position as a popular president from the South who personally supported African American suffrage offered a golden opportunity for progress in the cause of civil rights. Johnson seized the opportunity offered by the televised police beatings of peaceful, pro-suffrage marchers in Selma, Alabama to urge Congress to act.