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Context of 'May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Legislation Advances Voting Rights of Minorities'

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One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1957, the first such law to pass Congress since the federal civil rights laws of 1875. The law allows the US attorney general to bring suits to address discrimination and voter intimidation against African-Americans and other minorities. The CRA is the jumping-off point of successive legislative attempts to grant equal rights and protections for minority citizens. President Eisenhower was never a vocal supporter of civil rights, believing that such changes had to come from within the “heart” and not be imposed by legislation from Washington. However, he does support the CRA, and helped push it through Congress against entrenched resistance, largely but not entirely from Southern Democrats determined to protect segregationist practices even after the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954). The CRA originally created a new division within the Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses, but Senate Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson (D-TX), worked to water down the bill in order to keep Southern Democrats and more liberal Democrats from the west and northeast from tearing the party apart along ideological lines. Johnson, along with Senator James O. Eastland (D-MS), rewrote the CRA to take much of its power away. The final version does grant new protections for African-American voters, pleasing the liberals of the Democratic Party, but contains almost no enforcement procedures for those found obstructing African-Americans’ attempts to vote, thus mollifying the conservative wing of the party. Eisenhower himself admitted that he did not understand parts of the bill. African-American leader Ralph Bunche, a prominent US diplomat, calls the act a sham and says he would rather have no bill than the CRA. But Bayard Rustin, a leader of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), says the bill has symbolic value as the first piece of civil rights legislation passed in 82 years. (History Learning Site 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1960. This legislation goes somewhat farther than its 1957 predecessor (see August 29, 1957). It requires election officials to have all records relating to voter registration and permits the Department of Justice to inspect them, making it more difficult for white interests to oppress African-American voters. Additionally, the law allows African-Americans barred from voting to apply to a federal court or voting arbitrator to gain those rights. Like its predecessor, it was ushered through by President Eisenhower, who pushed for the bill after an outbreak of violence against African-American churches and schools throughout the South in late 1958. And as with the first bill, Southern legislators line up in opposition to it, calling it an unacceptable interference in states’ affairs by the federal government. The second Civil Rights Act is not a major enhancement for voting-rights protections, and many critics call it little more than a sop to engage African-American voters in the 1960 elections. The new bill does provide for the creation of a Civil Rights Commission in the Justice Department, a provision that was eliminated from the 1957 bill. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The transformative Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes Congress. The law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, religion, or gender in voting, public places, the workplace, and schools. Former President John F. Kennedy had argued for new civil rights legislation, saying that previous legislative efforts (see August 29, 1957 and May 6, 1960) did not go far enough. Kennedy waited until 1963 to send his legislation to Congress, and was assassinated before the bill was passed. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy told the public, “The negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one-third as much chance of completing college; one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much.” His successor, Lyndon Johnson, a conservative Southern Democrat, surprised many by pushing the bill instead of falling in line with conservative Southern Democrats who opposed it. Johnson and Senate leaders successfully fought back a filibuster by Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) and 17 other segregationist Democratic senators who tried to derail the bill; it passed the Senate on a 73-24 vote. Some believe that the passage of the bill is one of the major legislative acts that drives many Southern Democrats to leave the party for the increasingly conservative venue of the Republican Party. The word “sex,” to prohibit gender-based discrimination, was added to the legislation at the last minute by Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA), and some accused Smith of inserting the provision as a means to kill the entire bill. Smith argued that he was supportive of efforts by women’s rights organizations, and inserted the language in a sincere effort to curb discrimination against women. Smith is joined by Representative Martha W. Griffiths (D-MI) in keeping the provision in the bill. Perhaps the most significant provision of the bill is the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with implementing the law. The EEOC will use the practice of “affirmative action” to curb discrimination, including mandating hiring of minorities and women to alleviate many employers’ practice of hiring white males almost exclusively, especially for more senior positions. President Johnson will extend his support to “affirmative action,” and is perhaps the first public figure to use the phrase in addressing the public. (Simkin 2008; National Archives 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Fox Business Channel host and commentator John Stossel says a key portion of the Civil Rights Act should be eliminated, because, he says, “[p]rivate businesses ought to get to discriminate.” (Media Matters 5/20/2010; Media Matters 9/7/2010) The 1964 Civil Rights Act (see July 2, 1964), signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson, prohibits discrimination in public places, provides for the integration of public schools and other public facilities, and makes employment discrimination illegal. (Media Matters 9/7/2010; National Archives 2011) Stossel, a guest on Fox News’s America Live, tells host Megyn Kelly that he agrees with libertarian Rand Paul, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, in recommending that the portion of the Civil Rights Act mandating no discrimination in public places should be repealed. (Both Paul and Stossel argue that the Americans with Disabilities Act should also be repealed—see May 17, 2010 and September 1, 2010). Paul has said: “[Y]ou should let businesses decide for themselves whether they are going to be racist or not racist. Because once the government gets involved, it’s a slippery slope.” When Kelly quotes this comment from Paul, Stossel says he is “in total agreement” with Paul, stating: “[I]f a private business wants to say, ‘We don’t want any blond anchorwomen or mustached guys,’ it ought to be their right. Are we going to say to the black students’ association they have to take white people, or the gay softball association they have to take straight people? We should have freedom of association in America.” (Kelly is a blond anchorwoman, and Stossel wears a mustache.) Kelly says: “When you put it like that it sounds fine, right? So who cares if a blond anchorwoman and mustached anchorman can’t go into the lunchroom. But as you know, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came around because it was needed. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter with whites. They couldn’t, as they traveled from state to state in this country, they couldn’t go in and use a restroom. They couldn’t get severed meals and so on, and therefore, unfortunately in this country a law was necessary to get them equal rights.” Stossel notes that those “Jim Crow” doctrines “were government rules. Government was saying we have white and black drinking fountains. That’s very different from saying private people can’t discriminate.” Stossel says that business owners should be free to discriminate, and if the “free market” punishes them by costing them customers, then that is a fair way to handle it. Kelly says the time of the Civil Rights Act “was a different time. Racism and discrimination was rampant. I’m not saying it’s been eliminated. But it was rampant. It was before my time, before I was born, but obviously I’ve read history, and I know that there is something wrong when a person of color can’t get from state to state without stopping at a public restroom or a public lunchroom to have a sandwich.” Stossel says: “But the public restroom was run by the government, and maybe at the time that was necessary.… And I would go further than he was willing to go, as he just issued the statement, and say it’s time now to repeal that part of the law.… Because private businesses ought to get to discriminate. And I won’t won’t ever go to a place that’s racist and I will tell everybody else not to and I’ll speak against them. But it should be their right to be racist.” (Media Matters 5/20/2010; Media Matters 9/7/2010) Stossel’s position provokes considerable criticism, and the civil rights organization Color of Change calls for a boycott of Fox Business until it fires Stossel. The organization writes: “Stossel’s position is an affront to black America and everyone in this country who believes in racial progress. It’s one thing to be a candidate with backwards views [referring to Paul]. It’s another to be employed by a supposed news network and to use that platform to push hateful ideas that our nation repudiated decades ago. It’s time that Fox drop Stossel.” (Salem News 5/22/2010) US Representative Bob Filner (D-CA), a veteran of civil rights protests, responds: “A ‘private’ business generally operates on a public thoroughfare, is protected by public police and fire departments, is served by public transportation, is staffed by people educated in public schools, is protected against fraud by the public justice system, may serve food or sell products protected by public inspection agencies, etc., etc., etc. Surely the public has a right to insist on non-racist policies! As a Freedom Rider in 1961, I rode on an interstate, publicly franchised Greyhound bus, and, as a member of an integrated group, was denied access to restrooms, lunch counters, and waiting rooms. The Supreme Court rightly ruled this was unconstitutional. Do Rand Paul and John Stossel want to take us back to a racist past from which so many people gave their lives to liberate us?” (Media Matters 5/21/2010) Andrew Grant-Thomas, deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, says that Stossel has fundamentally misrepresented history, stating, “Market forces hadn’t exactly made anti-black discrimination disappear during the several centuries before the Civil Rights Act.” Even with the progress made since the legislation took effect, Grant-Thomas says, racial discrimination is still a major problem. “If you look at any market for which we’ve done extensive studies, significant discrimination remains,” he says. “It’s clearly better than it was. But there’s still discrimination.” There is a strong market for businesses that “currently, and legally, discriminate on the basis of race, or other grounds, in their membership. That hasn’t caused them to go under. Indeed… in some key arenas, like housing and schools, some people pay more for segregated settings.” He concludes: “The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed on economic grounds, but on moral and ethical grounds. Suggesting that market logic would have sufficed to weed out discriminators is pretty much besides the point in that respect.” (McLaughlin 5/20/2010) A clearly aggrieved Stossel will respond to the criticism (see July 2, 2010).

Fox Business Channel host and commentator John Stossel goes on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor to defend his recent call to repeal a key element of the Civil Rights Act (see May 20-22, 2010). (Media Matters 5/25/2010) The 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson, prohibits discrimination in public places, provides for the integration of public schools and other public facilities, and makes employment discrimination illegal (see July 2, 1964). (Media Matters 9/7/2010; National Archives 2011) Host Bill O’Reilly is less than sympathetic to Stossel’s call for repeal, noting that one function of government is to protect its citizens, and this includes protecting them from discrimination, even at the hands of private businesses, which Stossel says should not be covered under the law. It is up to the government, O’Reilly says, to ensure every citizen’s “quality of life.” Stossel says he is a libertarian, and like most libertarians, he wants government to protect him from those who would physically hurt him, steal from him, and so forth. “But we want government out of our private lives,” he says, and to expect government to step in to “make life fair” is “an awful idea.” O’Reilly counters that the Declaration of Independence guarantees “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and discrimination denies targeted minorities that “pursuit of happiness.” Stossel, as he did earlier, insists that private businesses rarely if ever practice discrimination in this day and age, and those that do are quickly punished by “market forces”—customers refusing to patronize those businesses, for example. O’Reilly is adamant, saying, “I feel very strongly, if it’s open to the public, then the public has to be” allowed access. (Media Matters 5/25/2010)


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