Civil Rights Act of 1957

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The Civil Rights Act of 1957, Pub.L. 85–315, 71 Stat. 634, enacted September 9, 1957, a federal voting rights bill, was the first federal civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Its purpose was to show the federal government's support for racial equality after the US Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Opposition to the Act, including the longest one-person filibuster in U.S. history, limited its immediate impact. The Act, however, paved the way for a series of more effective civil rights bills in the 1960s.


Following the Supreme Court ruling in Brown, which eventually led to the integration, also called desegregation, of public schools,[1] Southern whites began a campaign of "Massive Resistance." Violence against blacks rose; in Little Rock, Arkansas where U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to order in federal troops to protect nine children integrating into a public school, the first time the US federal government ordered troops in 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 Eisenhower administration proposed legislation to protect blacks' right to vote.

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 blacks were registered to vote. Despite being the majority 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 that were heavily instituted and propagated by Southern Democrats. Civil rights organizations had collected evidence of discriminatory practices, such as the administration of literacy and comprehension tests and poll taxes. 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: electors for president and vice president and members of the US Congress.


The Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, realized that the bill and its journey through Congress could tear apart his party, as southern Democrats opposed civil rights, and its northern members were more favorable. Southern Democrat senators occupied chairs of numerous important committees because of their long seniority. Johnson sent the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Democrat Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who drastically altered the bill. Democrat Senator Richard Russell, Jr., 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 as well as recognition from the anti-civil rights Democrats for weakening the bill so much as to make it toothless.[3]

The bill passed 285-126 in the House of Representatives with a majority of both parties' support (Republicans 167–19, Democrats 118–107)[4] It then passed 72-18 in the Senate, again with a majority of both parties (Republicans 43–0, Democrats 29–18).[5][clarification needed] Eisenhower signed the bill on September 9, 1957.


Then-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.[6] His one-man filibuster lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes; he began with readings of every US state's election laws in alphabetical order. He later read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington's Farewell Address.

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. 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]

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 bill then under consideration could legally deny trial by jury to those that continued to do so.[8]

Democratic Representative Charles A. Boyle of Illinois, a member of the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee of Defense, pushed the bill through the House of Representatives.


Section 101 set up a six-member Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch to gather information on citizens' deprivation of voting rights based on color, race, religion, or national origin as well as the legal background, the laws, and the policies of the federal government. The commission was to take testimony or written complaints from individuals on the difficulties in registering and voting. It would submit a final report to the President and the Congress within two years and then cease to exist.

Part IV, Section 131, banned intimidating, coercing or otherwise interfering with the rights of persons to vote for electors for President and members of Congress. The United States Attorney General was allowed to institute actions, including injunctions and charges of contempt of court, with fines not to exceed $1000 and six months imprisonment. Extensive safeguards for the rights of accused were provided by the statute. US federal judges were allowed to hear cases related to the Act with or without juries.

Not being able to vote in most of the South, blacks were then excluded from state juries there. Federal jury selection had been tied to state jury selection rules, thus in some instances excluding both blacks and women as federal jurors. Section 161 freed federal courts from state jury rules and specified qualifications for jurors in federal courts. "Any citizen" 21 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, was eligible. Since neither race nor sex was listed among the qualifications, the provision allowed both blacks and women 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 US Attorney General William P. Rogers, giving the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights a distinct division to command. Previously, civil rights lawyers had enforced Reconstruction-era civil rights laws from within the Department's Criminal Division.


Although the Act's passage through seemed to indicate a growing federal commitment to the cause of civil rights, the legislation was limited. Alterations to the bill made the Act difficult to enforce; by 1960, black voting had increased by only 3%.[2] Its passage showed varying degrees of willingness to support civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr., then 28, was a developing leader in the Civil Rights Movement and spoke out against white supremacists. Segregationists had burned black churches, which were centers of education and organizing for voter registration, and physically attacked black activists, including women. King sent a telegram to Eisenhower to make a speech to the South and asked 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 Eisenhower stating that the latter'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 the President but was given a two-hour meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon. It is reported that Nixon was impressed with King and told Eisenhower that he might enjoy meeting King later.[9]

Subsequent legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 addressed some of the shortcomings of the 1957 Act by expanding the authority of federal judges to protect voting rights and by requiring 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 nonviolent demonstrations to mark their cause. Now president, John F. Kennedy, called for a new bill in his televised Civil Rights Address 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 the speech after a series of civil rights protests, 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 the 1964 Freedom Summer, hundreds of students from the North came to participate in voter drives and community organizing. Media coverage, especially of the violent backlash exemplified by the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi, contributed to national support for civil rights legislation.

After the Kennedy assassination, now-President Lyndon Johnson helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made 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 the poor from registering to vote and from voting, established record-keeping and oversight, and provided for federal enforcement in areas with documented patterns of discrimination or low voter turnout.


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  2. 2.0 2.1 James A. Miller, "An inside look at Eisenhower's civil rights record" Archived 2012-01-07 at the Wayback Machine The Boston Globe at, 21 November 2007, accessed 28 October 2011
  3. Caro, Robert, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Chapter 39
  5. HR. 6127. CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1957. PASSED.
  6. web site
  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 Archived 2008-10-24 at
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  12. Civil Rights Act of 1964


  • Finley, Keith M. (2008). Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil Rights, 1938–1965. Baton Rouge: LSU Press. ISBN 9780807134610. OCLC 791398684.

External links