Civil Rights Act of 1957

Civil Rights Act of 1957

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, Pub.L. 85-315, 71 Stat. 634, enacted September 9, 1957, primarily a voting rights bill, was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress in the United States since Reconstruction following the American Civil War.

Following the historic US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1955), which eventually led to the integration of public schools, Southern whites in Virginia began a "Massive Resistance". Violence against blacks rose there and in other states, as in Little Rock, Arkansas, where that year President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered in federal troops to protect nine children integrating a public school, the first time the federal government had sent troops to the South since Reconstruction.[1] There had been continued physical assaults against suspected activists and bombings of schools and churches in the South. The administration of Eisenhower proposed legislation to protect the right to vote by African Americans.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, an ardent segregationist, sustained the longest one-person filibuster in history in an attempt to keep the bill from becoming law. His one-man filibuster lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes; he began with readings of every state's election laws in alphabetical order. Thurmond later read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington's Farewell Address. His speech set the record for a Senate filibuster.[2] The bill passed the House with a vote of 270 to 97 and the Senate 60 to 15. President Eisenhower signed it on September 9, 1957.



I believe that the United States must make certain that every citizen who is entitled to vote under the Constitution is given actually that right. I believe also that in sustaining that right we must sustain the power of the Federal judges in whose hands such cases would fall.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower, July 31, 1957, News Conference [3]

Content and passage

The goal of the 1957 Civil Rights Act was to ensure that all Americans could exercise their right to vote. By 1957, only about 20% of African Americans had registered to vote. Despite comprising the majority population in numerous counties and Congressional districts in the South, discriminatory voter registration rules and laws had effectively disfranchised most blacks in those states since the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries. Civil rights organizations had collected evidence of discriminatory practices, such as administration of literacy and comprehension tests, poll taxes and other means. While the states had the right to establish rules for voter registration and elections, the federal government found an oversight role in ensuring that citizens could exercise the constitutional right to vote for federal officers, such as the president, vice-president, and Congress.

The Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas, realized that the bill and its journey through Congress could tear apart his party, whose southern block was anti-civil rights and northern members were more pro-civil rights. Southern senators occupied chairs of numerous important committees due to their long seniority. Johnson sent the bill to the judiciary committee, led by Senator James Eastland from Mississippi, who proceeded to change and alter the bill almost beyond recognition. Senator Richard Russell from Georgia had claimed the bill was an example of the Federal government wanting to impose its laws on states. Johnson sought recognition from civil rights advocates for passing the bill, while also receiving recognition from the mostly southern anti-civil rights Democrats for reducing it so much as to kill it.


P.L. 85-315 September 9, 1957. 71 Stat 634-638. The law is focused exclusively on voting rights. Sec. 101 sets up a six-member Civil Rights Commission in the Executive Branch to gather information on deprivation of citizens' voting rights based on color, race, religion or national origin, the legal background, and laws and policies of the Federal Government. It was set up to take testimony or written complaints from individuals about difficulties in registering and voting. Not later than 2 years from date of enactment of this law the Commission will submit a final report to the President and the Congress, and will cease to exist.

Part IV, Section 131 is the most important action section of the law. It sets forth prohibitions against intimidating, coercing or otherwise interfering with the rights of persons to vote for the President and members of Congress. The Attorney General of the United States "may" [sic] institute actions, including injunctions and charges of contempt of court, with fines not to exceed $1000 and six months imprisonment. There are also extensive safeguards for the rights of accused under this statute. Federal judges were permitted to hear cases related to the act with or without juries. Not being able to vote in most of the South, blacks were also excluded from juries at the time.

The final version of the act established both the Commission on Civil Rights and the office of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Subsequently, on December 9, 1957, the Civil Rights Division was established within the Justice Department by order of U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers, giving the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights a distinct division to command. Previously, civil rights lawyers enforced Reconstruction-era civil rights laws from within the Criminal Division.


Although passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 seemed to indicate a growing federal commitment to the cause of civil rights, the legislation was limited. Because of the ways in which it had been changed, the government had difficulty enforcing it. By 1960, black voting had increased 3%.[1] Passage of the bill showed the willingness of national leaders to support, to varying degrees, the cause of civil rights.

At the time, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 28 and a developing leader in the civil rights movement; he spoke out against white supremacists. Segregationists had burned African-American churches, centers of education and organizing related to voter registration, and physically attacked African Americans, including women, who were activists. King sent a telegram to President Eisenhower to make a speech to the South, asking him to use “the weight of your great office to point out to the people of the South the moral nature of the problem.” Eisenhower responded, "I don’t know what another speech would do about the thing right now.”

Disappointed, King sent another telegram to the President, stating that Eisenhower's comments were “a profound disappointment to the millions of Americans of goodwill, north and south, who earnestly are looking to you for leadership and guidance in this period of inevitable social change.” He tried to set up a meeting with President Eisenhower, but was given a meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon, which lasted two hours. Nixon was reported to have been impressed with King and told the president that he might enjoy meeting with him in the future.[3]


Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, was a pro-segregation Senator from South Carolina. He vehemently opposed passage of the Act with the longest (although ultimately unsuccessful) filibuster ever conducted by a single Senator, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Cots were brought in from a nearby hotel for the legislators to sleep on while Thurmond discussed increasingly irrelevant and obscure topics, including his grandmother's biscuit recipe. Other southern senators, who had agreed as part of a compromise not to filibuster this bill, were upset with Thurmond. They believed his defiance made them look incompetent to their constituents. Other constituents were upset with their senators because they were seen as not helping Thurmond. [4]

Subsequent legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 addressed some of the shortcomings of the 1957 act. It expanded the authority of federal judges to protect voting rights. It required local authorities to maintain comprehensive voting records for review, so that the government could determine if there were patterns of discrimination against certain populations.[5]

The Civil Rights Movement continued to expand, with protesters leading non-violent demonstrations to mark their cause. President John F. Kennedy called for a new bill in his civil rights speech of June 11, 1963,[6] in which he asked for legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments," as well as "greater protection for the right to vote." Kennedy delivered this speech following a series of protests from the African-American community, the most concurrent being the Birmingham campaign, which concluded in May 1963.

In the summer of 1963, various parts of the civil rights movement collaborated to run voter education and voter registration drives in Mississippi. During Freedom Summer, hundreds of students from the North went there to participate in voter drives and community organizing. The media coverage and violent backlash, with the murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, contributed to national support for civil rights legislation.

After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making racial discrimination and segregation illegal[7], and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from registering to vote and voting, established record-keeping and oversight, and provided for federal enforcement in areas with documented patterns of discrimination.


  • Finley, Keith M. (2008). Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil Rights, 1938-1965, Baton Rouge, LSU Press.
  • Nichols, David. A. (2007). A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution, New York: Simon & Schuster.


  1. ^ a b James A. Miller, "An inside look at Eisenhower's civil rights record", Boston Globe at, 21 November 2007, accessed 28 October 2011
  2. ^ web site
  3. ^ a b Nichols, David (2007). A Matter of Justice Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1416541509
  4. ^ Caro, Robert (2002). Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, New York: Knopf, ISBN 0-394-52836-0
  5. ^ Civil Rights Act of 1960
  6. ^ "Transcript from the JFK library". the JFK library.. 1963-06-11. Retrieved 2011-10-28. 
  7. ^ Civil Rights Act of 1964

External links

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