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August 29, 1957: Congress Passes Civil Rights Act

August 29, 1957: Congress Passes Civil Rights Act

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]

Entity Tags: Dwight Eisenhower, Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights Act of 1957, James O. Eastland, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ralph Bunche, US Congress

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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