August 29, 1957 – The Senate Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1957

United States Senate Chambers

On August 29, 1957, the United States Senate passed the final version of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  The first civil rights legislation enacted since the Reconstruction period, the amended act replaced an initial version first proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on March 11, 1956.  The initial act went through torturous proceedings and changes before it was approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President on September 9th.

The final five-part act was primarily a voting rights act.  It did not create new voting rights, but initiated a greater federal role in protecting existing voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities.  Part I provided for the creation of a six-member bipartisan Commission of Civil Rights who were empowered, among other duties, to investigate any allegations that “certain citizens of the United States are being deprived of their right to vote and have that vote counted by reason of their color, race, religion, or national origin”.  Part II created the position of a new assistant attorney general and led in December 1957 to the formation of the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.  Part III conferred federal court jurisdiction over civil suits that could address and remedy civil rights violations.

Part IV provided significant federal enforcement powers to prohibit actions by any person designed to “intimidate, threaten, [or] coerce . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right [of any person] to vote as he may choose”.  Part IV also authorized the attorney general to initiate civil lawsuits to provide permanent or temporary injunctions or restraining orders to enforce the ban on racially discriminatory denials of the right to vote.  Part V, which had caused so much dissent in the Senate, allowed for enforcement of Part IV by trial in federal court.  Original versions of the act had only provided for trial by a federal judge; the Southern senators forced a compromise which allowed trial by jury on request.  They wanted to ensure the right for white southerners to verdicts from a jury of their white peers.

Compromises and amendments allowed the 1957 Civil Rights Act to pass, but stripped it of real power.  Actual registration and voting by African-Americans did not increase substantially after its passage.  The act did, however, pave the way to more effective legislation in 1964 and 1965 to secure African-American voting rights, housing rights, and an end to legal segregation.

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