65th Anniversary of the Enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957

“The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first federal civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The bill was passed by the 85th United States Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on September 9, 1957.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education brought the issue of school desegregation to the fore of public attention, as Southern Democratic leaders began a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ against desegregation. In the midst of this campaign, President Eisenhower proposed a civil rights bill designed to provide federal protection for African American voting rights; most African Americans in the Southern United States had been disenfranchised by state and local laws. Though the civil rights bill passed Congress, opponents of the act were able to remove or weaken several provisions via the Anderson–Aiken amendment and the O’Mahoney jury trial amendment, significantly watering down its immediate impact. During the debate over the law, Senator Strom Thurmond conducted the longest one-person filibuster in Senate history. Under the direction of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the Senate passed a watered-down, yet also passable, version of the House bill which removed stringent voting protection clauses.

Despite having a limited impact on African-American voter participation, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 did establish the United States Commission on Civil Rights and the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Congress would later pass far more effective civil rights laws in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.


Although the Act’s passage 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%. Its passage showed varying degrees of willingness to support civil rights. The Act restricted itself to protecting participation in federal elections.

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.”

Source. Learn more at the Civil Rights Digital Library.