History Timeline 1950's

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U.S. Timeline - The 1950s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1957

    April 29, 1957 - U.S. Congress approves the first civil rights bill since reconstruction with additional protection of voting rights.

    Civil Rights Act 1957

    It is not known as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although the 1957 bill certainly paved the way for that expanded legislation and took important steps in the Civil Rights movement that had been predominantly stagnant, from a legislative standpoint, since the days of reconstruction and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. More than seventy-five years later, after the negative years of Jim Crow, and the push forward partially credited to two events, the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and the inclusion of African American soldiers in the military during World War II that led to Truman's executive order that ended segregation in the military on July 26, 1948, another Civil Rights Act was long past due.

    It had been a goal of President Eisenhower to remedy defects in the system of voting rights applicable to minorities during his Presidency. At this time only twenty percent of the minority population was registered to vote, with discriminatory practices to registration rampant in local jurisdictions. By 1956, this goal had been meted out in various speeches, including his State of the Union speech in January. By April 9, 1956, Eisenhower had directed his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell Jr., to send a letter to the Vice President, as head of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House, what he wanted per legistation.

    Attorney General Letter, April 9, 1956

    The Vice President
    United States Senate
    Washington, D.C.

    Dear Mr. Vice President:

    At a time when many Americans are separated by deep emotions as to the rights of some of our citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution, there is a constant need for restraint, calm judgment and understanding. Obedience to law as interpreted by the courts is the way differences are and must be resolved. It is essential to prevent extremists from causing irreparable harm.

    In keeping with this spirit, President Eisenhower, in his State of the Union Message, said:

    "It is disturbing that in some localities allegations persist that Negro citizens are being deprived of their right to vote and are likewise being subjected to unwarranted economic pressures. I recommend that the substance of these charges be thoroughly examined by a Bipartisan Commission created by the Congress. It is hoped that such a Commission will be established promptly so that it may arrive at findings which can receive early consideration.***

    "We must strive to have every person judged and measured by what he is, rather than by his color, race or religion. There will soon be recommended to the Congress a program further to advance the efforts of the Government, within the area of Federal responsibility, to accomplish these objectives."

    The right to vote is one of our most precious rights. It is the cornerstone of our form of government and affords protection for our other rights. It must be safeguarded.

    Where there are charges that by one means or another the vote is being denied, we must find out all of the facts -- the extent, the methods, the results. The same is true of substantial charges that unwarranted economic or other pressures are being applied to deny fundamental rights safeguarded by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

    The need for a full scale public study as requested by the President is manifest. The executive branch of the federal government has no general investigative power of the scope required to undertake such a study. The study should be objective and free from partisanship. It should be broad and at the same time thorough.

    Civil rights are of primary concern to all our people. To this end the Commission's membership must be truly bipartisan and geographically representative.

    A bill detailing the Commission proposal is submitted with this statement.

    The proposed legislation provides that the Commission shall have six members, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. No more than three may be of the same political party. The Commission will be temporary, expiring two years from the effective date of the statute, unless extended by Congress. It will have authority to subpoena witnesses, take testimony under oath, and request necessary data from any executive department or agency. It may be required to make interim reports pending completion of a comprehensive final report containing findings and recommendation.

    The Commission shall have authority to hold public hearings. Knowledge and understanding of every element of the problem will give greater clarity and perspective to one of the most difficult problems facing our country. Such a study, fairly conducted, will tend to unite responsible people in common effort to solve these problems. Investigation and hearings will bring into sharper focus the areas of responsibility of the federal government and of the states under our constitutional system. Through greater public understanding, therefore, the Commission may chart a course of progress to guide us in the years ahead.


    At present the Civil Rights Section of the Departmet of Justice is one of the number of sections located within the Criminal Division. The protection of civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution is a governmental function and responsibility of first importance. It merits the full direction of a highly qualified lawyer, with the status of Assistant Attorney General, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

    In this area, as pointed out more fully below, more emphasis should be on civil law remedies. The civil rights enforcement activities of the Department of Justice should not, therefore, be confined to the Criminal Division.

    The decisions and decrees of the United States Supreme Court relating to integration in the field of education and in other areas, and the civil rights cases coming before the lower federal courts in increasing numbers, are indicative of generally broadening legal activity in the civil rights field.

    These considerations call for the authorization of an additional Assistant Attorney General to direct the Government's legal activities in the field of civil rights. A draft of legislation to effect this result is submitted herewith.


    The present laws affecting the right of franchise were conceived in another era. Today every interference with this right should not necessarily be treated as a crime. Yet the only method of enforcing existing laws protecting this right is through criminal proceedings.

    Civil remedies have not been available to the Attorney General in this field. We think that they should be. Criminal cases in a field charged with emotion are extraordinarily difficult for all concerned. Our ultimate goal is the safeguarding of the free exercise of the voting right, subject to the legitimate power of the state to prescribe necessary and fair voting qualifications. To this end, civil proceedings to forestall denials of the right may often be far more effective in the long run than harsh criminal proceedings to punish after the event.

    The existing civil voting statute (section 1971 of Title 42, United States Code) declares that all citizens who are otherwise qualified to vote at any election (state or federal) shall be entitled to exercise their vote without distinction of race or color. The statute is limited, however to deprevations of voting rights by state officers or other persons purporting to act under authority of law. In the interest of proper law enforcement to guarantee to all of our citizens the rights to which they are entitled under the Constitution, I urge consideration by the Congress and the proposed Bipartisan Commission of three changes.

    First, addition of a section which will prevent anyone from threatening, intimidating, or coercing an individual in the exercise of his right to vote, whether claiming to act under authority of law or not, in any election, general, special or primary, concerning candidate for federal office.

    Second, authorization to the Attorney General to bring injunction or other civil proceedings on behalf of the United States or the aggrieved person in any case covered by the statute, as so charged.

    Third, elimination of the requirement that all state administrative and judicial remedies must be exhausted before access can be had to the federal court.


    Under another civil rights statute (section 1985 of Title 42 of the United States code) conspiracies to interfere with certain rights can be redressed only by a civil suit by the individual injured thereby. I urge consideration by the Congress and the proposed Bipartisan Commission of a proposal authorizing the Attorney General to initiate civil action where necessary to protect the rights secured by the statute.


    I believe that consideration of these proposals not only will give us the means intelligently to meet our responsibility for the safeguarding of Constitutional rights in this country, but will reaffirm our determination to secure equal justice under law for all people.


    Attorney General

    Process and Outcome

    So how close did the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1957 come to the desires of President Eisenhower and how effective was the legislation? There was difficulty within the Democratic caucus to any legislation that would overturn local voting rules with Southern Democrats balking at the legislation, led by South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurmond, who instituted a one person, twenty-four hour and eighteen minutes filibuster, the longest in history, to stop the bill. Other Democrats, led by Texas Senator, the Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, agreed with Eisenhower's purpose. His Senate Judiciary committee chairman, James Eastland of Mississippi, however, weakened the bill, removing several provisions, including those that referred to state and local elections, that would lessen its immediate impact, but insure the support of many Democrats.

    The bill passed both houses of Congress; 285-126 in the House of Representatives and 72-18 in the Senate. Both parties voted for the bill, with only 19 Republicans opposed, all in the House, and one hundred and twenty-five Democrats opposed total in both houses.

    It would take additional voting rights acts to strengthen the 1957 law, the acts of 1960 and 1964. Its importance, however, should not be overlooked, as it indicated a growing effort on the federal level for civil rights with the establisment of the Civil Rights Commission. The impact on voting registation, however, was minimal. Minority registration only grew from twenty percent to twenty-three percent by 1960.

    Full Text, Civil Rights Acts of 1957

    AN ACT

    To provide means of further securing and protecting the civil rights of persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.

    Be it enacted by the Seriate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

    PART I - ESTABLISHMENT OF THE COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS SEC. 101. (a) There is created in the executive branch of the Government a Commission on Civil Rights (hereinafter called the "Commission").

    (b) The Commission shall be composed of six members who shall be appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. Not more than three of the members shall at any one time be of the same political party.

    (c) The President shall designate one of the members of the Commission as Chairman and one as Vice Chairman. The Vice Chairman shall act as Chairman in the absence or disability of the Chairman, or in the event of a vacancy in that office.

    (d) Any vacancy in the Commission shall not affect its powers and shall be filled in the same manner, and subject to the same limitation with respect to party affiliations as the original appointment was made.

    (e) Four members of the Commission shall constitute a quorum.


    SEC. 102. (a) The Chairman or one designated by him to act as Chairman at a hearing of the Commission shall announce in an opening statement the subject of the hearing.

    (b) A copy of the Commission's rules shall be made available to the witness before the Commission.

    (c) Witnesses at the hearings may be accompanied by their own counsel for the purpose of advising them concerning their constitutional rights.

    (d) The Chairman or Acting Chairman may punish breaches of order and decorum and unprofessional ethics on the part of counsel, by censure and exclusion from the hearings.

    (e) If the Commission determines that evidence or testimony at any hearing may tend to defame, degrade, or incriminate any person, it shall (1) receive such evidence or testimony in executive session;

    (2) afford such person an opportunity voluntarily to appear as a witness; and (3) receive and dispose of requests from such person to subpena additional witnesses.

    (f) Except as provided in sections 102 and 105 (f) of this Act^ the Chairman shall receive and the Commission shall dispose of requests to subpena additional witnesses.

    (g) No evidence or testimony taken in executive session may be released or used in public sessions without the consent of the Commission. Whoever releases or uses in public without the consent of the Commission evidence or testimony taken in executive session shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned for not more than one year.

    (h) In the discretion of the Commission, witnesses may submit brief and pertinent sworn statements^ in writing for inclusion in the record. The Commission is the sole judge of the pertinency of testimony and evidence adduced at its hearings.

    (i) Upon payment of the cost thereof, a witness may obtain a transcript copy of his testimony given at a public session or, if given at an executive session, when authorized by the Commission.

    (j) A witness attending any session of the Commission shall receive $4 for each day's attendance and for the time necessarily occupied in going to and returning from the same, and 8 cents per mile for going from and returning to his place of residence. "Witnesses who attend at points so far removed from their respective residences as to prohibit return thereto from day to day shall be entitled to an additional allowance of $12 per day for expenses of subsistence, including the time necessarily occupied in going to and returning from the place of attendance. Mileage payments shall be tendered to the witness upon service of a subpena issued on behalf of the Commission or any subcommittee thereof.

    (k) The Commission shall not issue any subpena for the attendance and testimony of witnesses or for the production of written or other matter which would require the presence of the party subpenaed at a hearing to be held outside of the State, wherein the witness is found or resides o ; transacts business.


    SEC. 103. (a) Each member of the Commission who is not otherwise in the service of the Government of the United States shall receive the sum of $50 per day for each day spent in the work of the Commission, shall be reimbursed for actual and necessary travel expenses, and shall receive a per diem allowance of $12 in lieu of actual expenses for subsistence when away from his usual place of residence, inclusive of fees or tips to porters and stewards.

    (b) Each member of the Commission who is otherwise in the service of the Government of the United States shall serve without compensation in addition to that received for such other service, but while engaged in the work of the Commission shall be reimbursed for actual and necessary travel expenses, and shall receive a per diem allowance of $12 in lieu of actual expenses for subsistence when away from his usual place of residence, inclusive of fees or tips to porters and stewards.


    SEC. 104. (a) The Commission shall -

    (1) investigate allegations in writing under oath or affirmation that certain citizens of the United States are being deprived of their right to vote and have that vote counted by reason of their color, race^ religion, or national origin; which writing, under oath or affirmation, shall set forth the facts upon which such belief or beliefs are based;

    (2) study and collect information concerning legal developments constituting a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution; and

    (3) appraise the laws and policies of the Federal Government with respect to equal protection of the laws under the Constitution. (b) The Commission shall submit interim reports to the President la^'nt^'an^d' and to the Congress at such times as either the Commission or the gress. President shall deem desirable, and shall submit to the President and to the Congress a final and comprehensive report of its activities, findings, and recommendations not later than two years from the date of the enactment of this Act.

    (c) Sixty days after the submission of its final report and recommendations the Commission shall cease to exist.


    SEC. 105. (a) There shall be a full-time staff director for the Commission who shall be appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and who shall receive compensation at a rate, to be fixed by the President, not in excess of $22,500 a year. The President shall consult with the Commission before submitting the nomination of any person for appointment to the position of staff director. Within the limitations of its appropriations, the Commission may appoint such other personnel as it deems advisable, in accordance with the civil service and classification laws, and may procure services as authorized by section 15 of the Act of August 2, 1946 (60 Stat. 810; 5 U. S. C. 55a), but at rates for individuals not in excess of $50 per diem.

    (b) The Commission shall not accept or utilize services of voluntary or uncompensated personnel, and the term "whoever" as used in paragraph (g) of section 102 hereof shall be construed to mean a person whose services are compensated by the United States. (c) The Commission may constitute such advisory committees within States composed of citizens of that State and may consult with governors, attorneys general, and other representatives of State and local governments, and private organizations, as it deems advisable. (d) Members of the Commission, and members of advisory committees constituted pursuant to subsection (c) of this section, shall be exempt from the operation of sections 281, 283, 284, 434, and 1914 of title 18 of the United States Code, and section 190 of the Revised Statutes (5 U . S . C. 99). _

    (e) All Federal agencies shall cooperate fully with the Commission to the end that it may effectively carry out its functions and duties.

    (f) The Commission, or on the authorization of the Commission any subcommittee of two or more members, at least one of whom shall be of each major political party, may, for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act, hold such hearings and act at such times and places as the Commission or such authorized subcommittee may deem advisable. Subpenas for the attendance and testimony of witnesses or the production of written or other matter may be issued in accordance with the rules of the Commission as contained in section 102 (j) and (k) of this Act, over the signature of the Chairman of the Commission or of such subcommittee, and may be served by any person designated by such Chairman.

    (g) In case of contumacy or refusal to obey a subpena, any district court of the United States or the United States court of any Territory or possession, or the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia, within the jurisdiction of which the inquiry is carried on or within the jurisdiction of which said person guilty of contumacy or refusal to obey is found or resides or transacts business, upon application by the Attorney General of the United States shall have jurisdiction to issue to such person an order requiring such person to appear before the Commission or a subcommittee thereof, there to produce evidence if so ordered, or there to give testimony touching the matter under investigation; and any failure to obey sucn order of the court may be punished by said court as a contempt thereof.


    SEC. 106. There is hereby authorized to be appropriated, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, so much as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this Act.


    SEC. 111. There shall be in the Department of Justice one additional Assistant Attorney General, who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, who shall assist the Attorney General in the performance of his duties, and who shall receive conipensation at the rate prescribed by law for other Assistant Attorneys General.


    SEC. 121. Section 1343 of title 28, United States Code, is amended as follows:

    (a) Amend the catch line of said section to read, "S 1343. Civil rights and elective franchise"

    (b) Delete the period at the end of paragraph (3) and insert in lieu thereof a semicolon.

    (c) Add a paragraph as follows:

    " (4) To recover damages or to secure equitable or other relief under any Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote."

    SEC. 122. Section 1989 of the Revised Statutes (42 U. S. C. 1993) Repeal, is hereby repealed.


    SEC. 131. Section 2004 of the Revised Statutes (42 U. S. C. 1971), is amended as follows:

    (a) Amend the catch line of said section to read, "Voting rights".

    (b) Designate its present text with the subsection symbol "(a)".

    (c) Add, immediately following the present text, four new subsections to read as follows:

    "(b) No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector. Member of the Senate, or Member of the House or Representatives, Delegates or Commissioners from the Territories or possessions, at any general, special, or primary election held solely or in part for the purpose of selecting or electing any such candidate.

    "(c) Whenever any person has engaged or there are reasonable grounds to believe that an^ person is about to engage in any act or practice which would deprive any other person of any right or priviege secured by subsection (a) or (b), the Attorney General may institute for the United States, or in the name of the United States, a civil action or other proper proceeding for preventive relief, including an application for a permanent or temporary injunction, restraining order, or other order. In any proceeding hereunder the United States shall be liable for costs the same as a private person. "(d) The district courts of the United States shall have jurisdiction of proceedings instituted pursuant to this section and shall exercise the same without regard to whether the party aggrieved shall have exhausted any administrative or other remedies that may be provided by law. "(e) Any person cited for an alleged contempt under this Act shall be allowed to make his full defense by counsel learned in the law; and the court before which he is cited or tried, or some judge thereof, shall immediately, upon his request, assign to him such counsel, not exceeding two, as he may desire, who shall have free access to him at all reasonable hours. He shall be allowed, in his defense to make any proof that he can produce by lawful witnesses, and shall have the like process of the court to compel his witnesses to appear at his trial or hearing, as is usually granted to compel witnesses to appear on behalf of the prosecution. If such person shall be found by the court to be financially unable to provide for such counsel, it shall be the duty of the court to provide svich counsel."


    SEC. 151. In all cases of criminal contempt arising under the provisions of this Act, the accused, upon conviction, shall be punished by fine or imprisonment or both: Provided however^ That in case the accused is a natural person the fine to be paid shall not exceed the sum of $1,000, nor shall imprisonment exceed the term of six months: Provided further^ That in any such proceeding for criminal contempt, at the discretion of the judge, the accused may be tried with or without a jury: Provided further^ however, That in the event such proceeding for criminal contempt be tried before a judge without a jury and the sentence of the court upon conviction is a fine in excess of the sum of $300 or imprisonment in excess of forty-five days, the accused in said proceeding, upon demand therefor, shall be entitled to a trial de novo before a jury, which shall conform as near as may be to the practice in other criminal cases.

    This section shall not apply to contempts committed in the presence of the court or so near thereto as to interfere directly with the administration of justice nor to the misbehavior, misconduct, or disobedience, of any officer of the court in respect to the writs, orders, or process of the court.

    Nor shall anything herein or in any other provision of law be construed to deprive courts of their power, hj civil contempt proceedings, without a jury to secure compliance with or to prevent obstruction of, as distinguished from punishment for violations of, any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of the court in accordance with the prevailing usages of law and equity, including the power of detention.

    SEC. 152. Section 1861, title 28, of the United States Code is hereby amended to read as follows:

    "S 1861. Qualifications of Federal jurors

    "Any citizen of the United States who has attained the age of twenty-one years and who has resided for a period of one year within the judicial district, is competent to serve as a grand or petit juror unless -

    " (1) He has been convicted in a State or Federal court of record of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and his civil rights have not been restored by pardon or amnesty. "(2) He is unable to read, write, speak, and understand the English language.

    "(3) He is incapable, by reason of mental or physical infirmities to render efficient jury service."

    SEC. 161. This Act may be cited as the "Civil Rights Act of 1957". Approved September 9, 1957.

    Image above: Montage of (left) President Eisenhower signing Civil Rights Act of 1957, 1957, Naval Photographic Center. Coutesy Wikipedia Commons via National Archives; (right) Exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 2010, Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Library of Congress. Image below: Photo of school integration at the Barnard School in Washington, D.C., May 27, 1955, Thomas J. O'Hallaran, U.S. News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress. Source Info: Senate.gov; Eisenhower Presidential Library; Full text of Act courtesy Cornell University Law School via United States Government Printing Office; Wikipedia Commons.

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