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Civil Rights Act of 1957

Dwight Eisenhower

Civil Rights Act of 1957: Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th American President who served in office from January 20, 1953 to January 20, 1961. One of the important events during his presidency was the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Definition and Summary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957
Summary and definition:
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed into law at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement on September 9, 1957. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 did not create new rights, but it prohibited attempts to intimidate or prevent persons from voting and laid the foundation for federal enforcement of civil rights law including civil lawsuits.

The Act created the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice and gave it the power to seek court injunctions against anyone interfering with the right to vote. It created the Civil Rights Commission increasing protection of voting rights and the power to investigate incidents involving the denial of voting rights.

Facts about Civil Rights Act of 1957
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Civil Rights Act of 1957.

History: The Civil Rights Act of 1866 of the Reconstruction era detailed the rights of all U.S. citizens was passed by Congress as a response to the Black Codes enacted by many of the Southern states.

History: The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was intended to to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights but was practically ignored in the Southern states. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and it was never enacted.

History: The 1883 Supreme Court ruling and the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Case declared segregation to be constitutional which led to the segregation of the Jim Crow Laws and the "separate but equal" doctrine

History: In 1954, the legal case of Brown vs Board of Education ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

History: The modern Civil Rights Movement (1954 - 1970) emerged led by Dr Martin Luther King which aimed at eliminating the practice of segregation. African Americans were encouraged to exercise their civil rights and register to vote.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a firm believer of the right to vote, sent the civil rights bill to congress aimed at protecting the voting rights of all citizens.

President Eisenhower knew that the conservative Democrats in the southern states would try to block the legislation and hoped that the bill would split the Democrat party. Eisenhower also hoped that passing such a bill would convince African Americans to vote Republican.

Attorney General Herbert Brownell played a major role in shaping the bill which was very similar to a 1956 bill which had not been enacted because of the resistance of Southern senators.

The bill initially contained four parts:

  • Part I created a Civil Rights Commission within the executive branch to investigate violations of civil rights

  • Part 2 created an assistant attorney general for civil rights, providing additional power to the civil rights section of the Department of Justice to the Civil Rights Division

  • Part 3 aimed at expanding the authority of the Department of Justice to enforce civil rights through civil and criminal proceedings

  • Part 4 authorized the attorney general to bring civil lawsuits and obtain injunctions for the protection of voting rights

The bill did not create new rights, but it prohibited attempts to intimidate or prevent persons from voting and laid the foundation for federal enforcement of civil rights law.

Several Southern senators, led by Democrat Richard B. Russell of Georgia, attempted to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. 

They successfully argued that Part 3 of the bill gave unprecedented power to the federal government to force school and housing integration and using armed forces to help enforce the judicial process.

The Southern senators also successfully argued that Part 4 would mean that those who violated civil rights would be tried by a judge (rather than an all-white jury) which might be more lenient toward defendants in such cases

As a result of the opposition, the Senate majority leader Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, put together a compromise to enable the act to pass. Part 3 of the bill was omitted from the final version of the act and an additional  Part 5 was added to the compromise in a "jury trial" provision.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on June 18, 1957, by a vote of 286 to 126 and on September 9, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Although the Act of 1957 was much weaker than originally intended, it brought the power of the Federal government into the debates on Civil Rights issues. The law succeeded in showing that the Federal Government would not allow the southern states to do as they wished.

The Act marked the first occasion, since the Reconstruction era, that the federal government undertook significant legislative action to protect civil rights.

After the law was passed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr Martin Luther King, announced a campaign to register new voters.

The provisions of the 1957 law were amplified by the Civil Rights Act of 1960 that introduced penalties to be levied against those who obstructed attempts to register to vote or to actually vote.

After the Selma March, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2, 1964, banning segregation and discrimination based on race, nationality, or gender.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to safeguard the right to vote of Black Americans and bans the use of literacy tests.

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