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 federal civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress since the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was also Congress's show of support for the Supreme Court's Brown decisions, [1] the Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which had eventually led to the integration (desegregation) of public schools. Following the Supreme Court ruling, 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 into a public school, the first time the federal government had sent troops to the South since the Reconstruction era.[2] 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.

Democratic 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.[3] The bill passed the House with a vote of 285 to 126 (Republicans 167–19 for, Democrats 118–107 for)[4] and the Senate 72 to 18 (Republicans 43–0 for, Democrats 29–18 for).[5] President Eisenhower signed it on September 9, 1957.

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 were registered to vote. Despite comprising the majority population in numerous counties and Congressional districts in the South, most blacks had been effectively disfranchised by discriminatory voter registration rules and laws in those states since the late 19th 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 of Texas, realized that the bill and its journey through Congress could tear apart his party, whose southern bloc was opposed to civil rights, while northern members were more favorable toward them. Southern senators occupied chairs of numerous important committees because of their long seniority. Johnson sent the bill to the judiciary committee, led by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who proceeded to drastically alter the bill. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia had denounced the bill as an example of the federal government seeking 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.[6]


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. To prevent a quorum call that could have relieved the filibuster by allowing the Senate to adjourn, 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.[7]

Senator Thurmond 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.[8]


Public Law 85-315 September 9, 1957. 71 Stat 634–638. 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 two 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 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 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 excluded from state juries in the South at the time. Federal jury selection had been tied to state jury selection rules, thus in some instances excluding African-Americans and women as federal jurors. Section 161 freed federal courts from state jury rules and specified qualifications for jurors in federal courts: "Any citizen" twenty-one years or older, literate in English, who had resided in the judicial district for a year, excluding convicts and persons with mental or physical infirmities severe enough to make them unable to serve. Since neither race nor sex was listed among the qualifications, this provision made African-Americans and women eligible to serve on juries in trials in federal courts.

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%.[2] Passage of the bill showed the willingness of national leaders to support, to varying degrees, the cause of civil rights.

At the time, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was 28 years old 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.[9]

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.[10]

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 televised civil rights speech of June 11, 1963,[11] 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, most notably 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 in 1964, 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,[12] 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.


  1. McNeese, Tim (2008). The Civil Rights Movement: Striving for Justice. New York: Infobase Publishing.
  2. 1 2 James A. Miller, "An inside look at Eisenhower's civil rights record", The Boston Globe at, 21 November 2007, accessed 28 October 2011
  3. web site
  5. HR. 6127. CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1957. PASSED.
  6. Caro, Robert, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Chapter 39
  7. Caro, Robert (2002). Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-52836-0.
  9. Nichols, David. A. (2007). A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781416541509. OCLC 123968070.
  10. Civil Rights Act of 1960
  11. "Transcript from the JFK library". the JFK library. 1963-06-11. Archived from the original on 2007-02-05. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
  12. Civil Rights Act of 1964


External links

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