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Civil Rights Act of 1957: Remembering the Legislation That Paved the Way For Voting Rights Protections

Nicole Rojas
Aug 29, 2020 - 1:51

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Nearly everyone has heard about the landmark civil rights and voting rights laws passed in the 1960s, but not many know about the Civil Rights Act of 1957. More than six decades ago, Congress passed the first piece of civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction that aimed to protect the voting rights of Black Americans. 

The bill was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower and his attorney general, Herbert Brownell Jr. The two proposed the civil rights legislation that would provide voting protections in four major ways, according to The New York Times

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our representative form of government. It is the one right, perhaps more than any other, upon which all other constitutional rights depend for their effective protection. It must be zealously safeguarded,” Attorney General Brownell said in support of the bill in February 1957. “The Federal Government has in the past and must in the future play a major role in protecting this essential right.” 

In his statement, Brownell defended the federal government’s right to investigate and prosecute acts of voter suppression. He also pushed for legislation that would allow the Department of Justice to move forward with civil suits that could seek to solve voting issues before an election. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 did just that. The law proposed creating a civil rights commission to investigate voting irregularities, establishing a civil rights division within the Department of Justice, giving the attorney general power to file lawsuits to protect broad constitutional rights and allowing federal civil lawsuits to prosecute any voting rights violations.

The bill was taken up by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, who weakened it to appease his white Southern base. Johnson succeeded in forcing Eisenhower from dropping the proposal to grant the attorney general authority to sue to protect broad constitutional rights by threatening to kill the bill altogether. 

The senator also managed to pass an amendment that would require juries in the civil trials proposed by the final part of the bill. The move angered Eisenhower, who threatened to veto the bill and place the blame on Democrats. The two groups reached a compromise that would allow civil suits without a jury as long as the punishment did not extend further than a $300 fine or 45 days in prison. 

In June of that year, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 286-126. The compromise bill passed the Senate on August 29, 1957, following a day-long filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC). 

While the legislation was met by some trepidation, it received the support of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York’s only Black member of Congress at the time. In a statement sent from Germany, Powell exclaimed: “After 80 years of political slavery, this is the second emancipation.” 

Powell also expressed his support of Martin Luther King Jr.’s registration drive in the South and promised to assist the efforts by sending in political workers. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 would go on to serve as a precursor to key legislation in the coming years, including the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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