The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was introduced in Eisenhower’s presidency and was the act that kick-started thecivil rights legislative programme that was to include the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Eisenhower had not been known for his support of the civil rights movement. Rather than lead the country on the issue, he had to respond to problems such as in Little Rock. He never publicly gave support to the civil rights movement believing that you could not force people to change their beliefs; such changes had to come from the heart of the people involved, not as the result of legislation from Washington.
However, he did push through during his presidency the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Cynics have stated that this was simply to win the ‘Black Vote’. Up to 1957, and for a variety of reasons, only 20% of African Americans had registered to vote. In Britain, the government takes the initiative in sending out voter registration forms which individuals have to return. In America it is up to each person to take the responsibility to register their vote. In the South plain intimidation and official apathy and obstacles meant that very few African Americans registered their vote. Those that did not disqualified themselves from voting.
The 1957 Civil Rights Bill aimed to ensure that all African Americans could exercise their right to vote. It wanted a new division within the federal Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses and a joint report to be done by representatives of both major political parties (Democrats and Republicans) on the issue of race relations.
Eisenhower, perhaps shocked by the news broadcasts of Little Rock, publicly supported the bill (it was, after all, his Attorney-General who had produced the bill). However, the final act became a much watered done affair due to the lack of support among the Democrats. The Senate leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was a Democrat, and he realised that the bill and its journey through Congress, could tear apart his party as it had right wing Southern senators in it and liberal west coast ones.
In keeping with Congressional procedure, Johnson sent the bill to a judiciary committee which would examine it for flaws, controversial and unconstitutional points etc. This committee was led by Senator James Eastland – senator for Mississippi. Committee heads have great powers in changing bills and altering them almost beyond recognition. Eastland did just this especially after the very public outburst by Senator Richard Russell from Georgia who claimed that it was an example of the Federal government wanting to impose its laws on states, thus weakening highly protected states rights of self-government as stated in the Constitution. He was most critical of the new division which would be created within the Justice Department
Johnson had other reasons for taking his stance. No civil rights act had been introduced into America for 82 years. If this one went through successfully and had support from both parties, it would do his position within the Democrats a great deal of good as he had plans in 1957 to be the party’s future presidential candidate. If he could get the credit for maintaining party unity and get the support of the South’s Democrats for ‘killing the bill’, then his position would be greatly advanced. If he was seen to be pushing through the first civil rights act in 82 years he hoped to get the support of the more liberal west and east coast Democrat senators.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 maintained the mood of the bill – it aimed to increase the number of registered black voters and stated its support for such a move. However, any person found guilty of obstructing someone’s right to register barely faced the prospect of punishment as a trial by jury in the South meant the accused had to face an all-white jury as only whites could be jury members.
Political support and public confidence for the Act had been eroded when Eisenhower publicly admitted that he did not understand parts of it.
The African American community were divided with regards to the bill. University professor, Ralph Bunche, saw the bill as a sham and stated that he would have preferred no act at all rather than the 1957 Act. However, Bayard Rustin of CORE, believed that it was important because of its symbolism – the first civil rights legislation for 82 years. He realised that it could have been better but that almost certainly it was only the first of such acts and that it would be built on.