The 1957 Civil Rights Act

The 1957 Civil Rights Act

The 1957 Civil Rights Act marked a new era in the civil rights legislative programme. It set the precedent for increased federal responsibility in protecting African American rights. The objective of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was not to create new rights, but to protect the ones that already existed. Through the creation of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, It also allowed federal enforcement of civil rights law.

Eisenhower in the Oval Office
Eisenhower in the Oval Office

Background to the Act

The constitutional basis of the act can be found in the 14th and 15th Amendments of 1868 and 1870. These granted Congress the power to enforce civil rights without legislation. These constitutional rights had failed African Americans in the years that followed. U.S. Supreme Court interpretation and discriminative state law had undermine civil rights.

Federal government began to make small steps towards the protection of civil rights from 1939. However, civil rights were not on the top of Eisenhower’s agenda. He believed that legislation could not force people to change their beliefs.

Largely motivated by political aims, in 1957 he did push through the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

A block of Southern Democrats in Congress strongly opposed the bill. With such opposition, few had hope that the bill would survive. However, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson knew that his own presidential hopes depended on the enactment of civil rights legislation. He capitalised on his political skill and influence to help enact the legislation. After sacrificing two parts of the bill, it passed the Senate on 7 August 1957.

One of the primary aims of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill was to ensure that all African Americans could exercise their right to vote. Previously, black Americans faced intimidations and threats at the ballot box. 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.

However, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 had many weaknesses. For one, anybody found guilty of obstructing someone’s right to vote has to face trial by an all-white jury, leading to very few convictions. After four years of federal efforts, in 1965 only 1,516 more African Americans in Dallas county were registered to vote than in 1961.

Despite its flaws, the 1957 Civil Rights Act was a landmark in civil rights legislation - it set the precedent for federal government’s role in protecting the rights of all its citizens.

See also: Nashville Sit Ins

MLA Citation/Reference

"The 1957 Civil Rights Act". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.