Major Civil Rights Milestones of the 1950s and 1960s

The Civil Rights Act (1957) In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed. Also in that year a Civil Rights Act proposed by President Eisenhower was passed, the first such act since Reconstruction. The act established the Civil Rights Commission and a Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department. Under the new law the Attorney General was authorized to enforce the right to vote, and the act also reinforced laws that made interfering with voting illegal. Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered against the act in the Senate and set a filibustering record of 24 hours, 18 minutes.

In 1958 the Supreme Court heard the case of the N.A.A.C.P. v. Alabama. Alabama had attempted to inhibit the activities of the N.A.A.C.P., and ordered them to produce various records. The Alabama chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. refused to submit its membership lists to the state on Constitutional grounds and was fined $100,000. The Supreme Court disallowed the Alabama action. Justice Harlan wrote that “immunity from state scrutiny.. · [comes] within the protection of the 14th Amendment.” The N.A.A.C.P. therefore did not have to disclose list of members and had a constitutional right to protect its membership.

In 1960 a new Civil Rights Act strengthened the 1957 Act, establishing federal inspections of local voter registration polls and introducing penalties for anyone obstructing a person’s attempt to register to vote or actually vote. Many different cases made their way through state and federal courts over the years, as they struggled to find the exact meanings of the new laws. Questions such as jurisdiction, the extent to which states were required to be aggressive in enforcing laws and other related issues were up in the air for years.

Baker v. Carr, 1962. The in this case arose in Tennessee and reached the Supreme Court in 1962. In 1901 the State of Tennessee passed a law apportioning seats in the state General assembly among the state’s counties. Growth in the population of Tennessee led to an unfair distribution of seats in the assembly, as population shifts were not reflected in changes which had occurred since the 1901 apportionment. A group of Tennessee voters brought the case because they felt they had suffered a “debasement of their votes,” and were thus denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts did have jurisdiction because it was a constitutional issue.

A subsequent case from Alabama in 1964, Reynolds v. Sims, following the precedent of Baker held that improper or unfair apportionment was unconstitutional, and that they citizens’ voting rights were denied if their votes were diluted. Apportionment should be based on population, not other factors such as geography, history or economic structure. State legislatures should be represented as nearly as practicable on the basis of equal population, meaning that the vote of every person should be equal in value to the vote of every other person. That notion is contained in the rubric, “one person one vote.” Some commentators have asserted that Baker v. Carr, because it goes to the fundamental structure of a democracy, is the most important case the Supreme Court ever decided.

Also in 1962 James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, and in the following year massive demonstrations across the South culminated in August with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington. Under President Lyndon Johnson additional Civil rights legislation was passed, and new, more militant Black voices were heard. In New York City in 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated, and Martin Luther King led the famous Selma to Montgomery freedom march. Additional civil rights cases invoked not only new civil rights laws, but one case went back to the 1866 Act and the 13th Amendment to declare that refusing to sell real estate to Blacks constituted a “badge of slavery,” which Congress had the power to define.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major achievement of President Lyndon Johnson. The act prohibited unfair application of voter registration requirements, but it did not abolish literacy tests, which were sometimes used to disqualify African Americans and poor white voters. The act also outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public establishments involved in interstate commerce; however, the act exempted private clubs without defining “private,” thereby allowing a loophole. Title III of the act encouraged public school desegregation and authorized the Attorney General to bring suits to force desegregation, but the act did not authorize busing as a means of overcoming segregation based on residence. Title V made discrimination in employment in any business exceeding 25 people illegal and created an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to require that voters in the United States take literacy tests to qualify to register to vote, and it provided for federal registration of voters in areas that had less than 50% of eligible minority voters registered. The act also provided for oversight of voter registration by the Department of Justice, and required the Justice Department’s approval for changes in voting law in districts that had used a “device” to limit voting and in which less than 50% of the population was registered to vote in 1964.

The 1968 Civil Rights Act expanded previous acts and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. It also provided protection for civil rights workers.

By the late 1960s various states were still struggling with integration, and the courts became less and less sympathetic to explanation of why it was not proceeding faster. By the 1970s the courts were demanding “extreme measures” in that remedial period, which the court saw as a “necessary evil” when all other things were not equal. The extreme measures included such actions as forcing cities to build new schools or to raise taxes to buy buses to facilitate integration. At the same time the Courts began to recognize that not all segregation was forced or created by law, and some rulings were sympathetic to cities where good faith efforts to integrate had not been able to keep pace with voluntary migration. The courts reasoned that the presence of some nearly all black or all white schools did not necessarily indicate enforced segregation.

Now, in the dawn of the 21st century, new issues regarding civil rights confront us, often in unwelcome form, driven by religious intolerance, terrorism and the demands of emerging ethnic minorities seeking the freedoms that Americans have always cherished. If Nietsche was correct, the 21st Century may bring us all we can handle, and the struggles of the past may well pale by comparison. What is needed is clearly a growth of understanding and insight into the concerns of our neighbors in an ever shrinking world. Here again, we are not yet out of the woods. Much remains to be done.

Postwar Domestic Home | Civil Rights Home | Updated November 8, 2016