The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968
The broad period from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction,” consisted of a grass-roots civil rights movement coupled with gradual but progressive actions by the Presidents, the federal courts, and Congress to provide full political rights for African Americans and to begin to redress longstanding economic and social inequities. While African-American Members of Congress from this era played prominent roles in advocating for reform, it was largely the efforts of everyday Americans who protested segregation that prodded a reluctant Congress to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.76
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_truman_cartoon_fair_deal_civil_rights_herblock_1949_LC-USZ62-127332.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressA Herblock cartoon from March 1949 depicts a glum-looking President Harry S. Truman and “John Q. Public” inspecting worm-ridden apples representing Truman’s Fair Deal policies such as civil rights and rent controls. The alliance of conservative southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress who successfully blocked many of Truman’s initiatives is portrayed by the worm labeled “Coalition.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, executive action, rather than legislative initiatives, set the pace for measured movement toward desegregation. President Harry S. Truman “expanded on Roosevelt’s limited and tentative steps toward racial moderation and reconciliation.”77
Responding to civil rights advocates, Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Significantly, the committee’s October 1947 report, To Secure These Rights, provided civil rights proponents in Congress a legislative blueprint for much of the next two decades. Among its recommendations were the creation of a permanent FEPC, the establishment of a permanent Civil Rights Commission, the creation of a civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice, and the enforcement of federal anti-lynching laws and desegregation in interstate transportation. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military. Truman’s civil rights policies contributed to the unraveling of the solid Democratic South. Alienated by the administration’s race policies, a faction of conservative southerners split to form the Dixiecrats, a racially conservative party that nominated South Carolina Governor (and future U.S. Senator) Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate in 1948.78
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though more cautious, also followed his predecessor’s pattern—desegregating Washington, DC, overseeing the integration of blacks to the military, and promoting minority rights in federal contracts.79
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_brooke_edwin_nara_306-PSD-67-243.xmlImage courtesy of National Archives and Records AdministrationSworn in to the United States Senate on January 3, 1967, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (second from right) became the first black Senator since 1881. Vice President Hubert Humphrey administered the oath of office, while Senators Mike Mansfield of Montana, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy of Massachusetts observed.
The federal courts also carved out a judicial beachhead for civil rights activists. In Smith v. Allwright
(321 U.S. 649, 1944), the U.S. Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, outlawed the white primary, which by excluding blacks from participating in the Democratic Party primary in southern states had effectively disfranchised them since the early 1900s. A decade later, the high court under Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education
(347 U.S. 483, 1954), a case that tested the segregation of school facilities in Topeka, Kansas. Brown sparked a revolution in civil rights with its plainspoken ruling that separate was inherently unequal. “In the field of public education, separate but equal has no place,” the Justices declared. Then, in the early 1960s, the Supreme Court rendered a string of decisions known as the “reapportionment cases” that fundamentally changed the voting landscape for African Americans by requiring that representation in the federal and state legislatures be based substantially on population. Baker v. Carr
(369 U.S. 186, 1962) upheld the justiciability of lawsuits that challenged districts apportioned to enforce voting discrimination against minorities. Gray v. Sanders
(372 U.S. 368, 1963) invalidated Georgia’s county unit voting system, giving rise to the concept “one man, one vote.” Two decisions in 1964, Wesberry v. Sanders
(376 U.S. 1) and Reynolds v. Sims
(377 U.S. 533), proved seminal. The court nullified Georgia’s unequal congressional districts in Wesberry while validating the 14th Amendment’s provision for equal representation for equal numbers of people in each district. In Reynolds, the Supreme Court solidified the “one man, one vote” concept in an 8 to 1 decision that expressly linked the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to the guarantee that each citizen had equal weight in the election of state legislators.
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_howard_smith_hc.xmlCollection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this objectHoward Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, routinely used his influential position to thwart civil rights legislation. Smith often shuttered committee operations by retreating to his rural farm to avoid deliberations on pending reform bills.
However, Congress lagged behind the presidency, the judiciary, and, often, public sentiment during much of the postwar civil rights movement.80
Southern conservatives still held the levers of power. Southerners continued to exert nearly untrammeled influence as committee chairmen (coinciding with the apex of congressional committee influence in the House and the Senate), in an era when Democrats controlled the House almost exclusively. In the 84th Congress (1955–1957), for instance, when Democrats regained the majority after a brief period of Republican control and embarked on 40 consecutive years of rule, 12 of the 19 House committees, including some of the most influential panels—Education and Labor, Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Rules, and Ways and Means—were chaired by southerners, who were largely unsympathetic to black civil rights.81
The powerful coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans that had arisen during the late 1930s as a conservative bloc against the economic and social programs of the New Deal continued for various reasons to impede a broad array of social legislation.
Several factors prevented the few African Americans in Congress from playing prominent legislative roles in institutional efforts to pass the major acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965. Black Members were too scarce to alter institutional processes or form a consequential voting bloc. Until the fall 1964 elections, there were only five African Americans in Congress: Dawson, Powell, Diggs, Nix, and Hawkins. John Conyers joined the House in 1965 and Brooke entered the Senate in 1967. These new Members had a limited amount of influence, although Hawkins scored a major success as a freshman when he helped shape the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a member of Powell’s Education and Labor Committee, and Brooke helped secure the housing anti-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 during his first term in the Senate. Yet while they were determined, energetic, and impassioned, there were too few African Americans in Congress to drive a policy agenda. Moreover, black Members themselves disagreed as to the best method to achieve civil rights advances, and individual legislative styles, conflicting loyalties (party versus activist agendas), and personality differences circumscribed their ability to craft a black issues agenda. Consequently, their uncoordinated and sporadic actions mitigated their potential effect. At key moments, some were excluded from the process or were inexplicably absent. Their symbolic leader, Powell, was too polarizing a figure for House leaders to accord him a highly visible role in the process. This perhaps explains why the Harlem Representative, despite his public passion for racial justice and his ability to deliver legislation through the Education and Labor Committee, was sometimes unusually detached from the legislative process.82
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_rosa_parks_LC-USZ62-111235.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressAs an NAACP activist in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a public bus in 1955. Her act of civil disobedience galvanized the U.S. civil rights movement. Congress later honored Parks with a Congressional Gold Medal and by making her the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda after her death. Above, Parks rides on a desegregated bus.
With few well-placed allies, civil rights initiatives faced an imposing gauntlet in a congressional committee system stacked with southern racial conservatives. Under the leadership of Chairman Emanuel Celler for most of this period, the House Judiciary Committee offered reformers a largely friendly and liberal forum. On the House Floor, a group of progressive liberals and moderate Republicans, including Celler, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Jacob Javits of New York, Hugh D. Scott of Pennsylvania, Frances Bolton of Ohio, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, emerged as civil rights advocates. Case (1954), Javits (1956), and Scott (1958) were elected to the Senate and would influence that chamber’s civil rights agenda. But no matter how much support the rank-and-file membership provided, any measure that passed out of Judiciary was sent to the House Rules Committee, which directed legislation onto the floor and structured bills for debate. Chaired by arch segregationist Howard Smith of Virginia, this hugely influential panel became the killing ground for a long parade of civil rights proposals. Measures were watered down or were never considered. Smith often shuttered committee operations, retreating to his farm in Virginia’s horse country to stall deliberations. When he explained one of his absences by noting that he needed to inspect a burned-down barn, Leo Allen of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee, remarked, “I knew the Judge was opposed to the civil rights bill. But I didn’t think he would commit arson to beat it.”83
The Senate’s anti-majoritarian structure magnified the power of southern racial conservatives. In contrast to the rules of the House, which strictly limited Members’ ability to speak on the floor, the Senate’s long-standing tradition of allowing Members to speak without interruption played into the hands of obstructionists. The filibuster, a Senate practice that allowed a Senator or a group of Senators to prevent a vote on a bill, became the chief weapon of civil rights opponents. In this era, too, Senate rules were modified, raising the bar needed to achieve cloture, i.e., to end debate and move to a vote on legislation. From 1949 to 1959, cloture required the approval of two-thirds of the chamber’s entire membership, rather than two-thirds of the Members who were present. Influential southern Senators held key positions in the upper chamber and, not surprisingly, were among the most skilled parliamentarians. Richard Russell of Georgia, a master of procedure, framed the opposition’s defense on constitutional concerns about federal interference in states’ issues, making him a more palatable figure than many of the Senate’s earlier racial conservatives such as Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman or Theodore Bilbo.84
Russell attracted northern and western Republicans to his cause based on their opposition to the expansion of federal powers that would be necessary to enforce civil rights in the South. Mississippi’s James Eastland, another procedural tactician, who presided over the Judiciary Committee beginning in March 1956, bragged that he had special pockets tailored into his suits where he stuffed bothersome civil rights bills. Between 1953 and 1965 more than 122 civil rights measures were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but only one was reported back to the full Senate.85
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_petition_to_eisenhower_signing_end_to_violence_lc.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressIn August 1955, a Chicago teenager, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Mississippi while visiting family. Till was lynched for the alleged “crime” of allegedly whistling at a white woman. The episode riveted national attention on violence against blacks in the South. Across the nation, groups like the Metropolitan Community Church of Chicago, pictured here, signed petitions to President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemning the violence.
Despite such official intransigence, the nonviolent civil rights movement—contrasting sharply with the vicious southern backlash against it—transformed public opinion. Driven increasingly by external events in the mid-1950s—the Brown v. Board of Education
decision and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—support for the passage of major civil rights legislation grew in Congress. In Montgomery, Alabama, local activists led by King (then a 27-year-old Baptist preacher), had launched a boycott against the city’s segregated bus system. The protest began after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a member of the NAACP who defied local ordinances in December 1955 by refusing to yield her seat on the bus to a white man and move to the rear of the vehicle.86
The year-long—and, ultimately, successful—boycott forged the SCLC, brought national attention to the struggle, and launched King to the forefront of a grass-roots, nonviolent humanitarian protest movement that, within a decade, profoundly changed American life.
Racial violence in the South, which amounted to domestic terrorism against blacks, continued into the middle of the 20th century and powerfully shaped public opinion. Though more sporadic than before, beatings, cross burnings, lynchings, and myriad other forms of white-on-black intimidation went largely unpunished. Nearly 200 African Americans are thought to have been lynched between 1929 and 1964, but that figure likely underrepresents the actual number.87
In August 1955, a particularly gruesome killing galvanized activists and shocked a largely complacent nation. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, was shot in the head, and his lifeless body was dumped off a bridge, for the alleged “crime” of whistling at a white woman. Determined to expose the brutality of the act, his mother allowed the national press to photograph the boy’s remains, and thousands of mourners streamed past the open casket.
Charles Diggs’s visible role in the wake of the Till lynching “catapulted” him into the “national spotlight.”88
At considerable personal risk, Diggs accompanied Till’s mother to the September 1955 trial at which the two accused murderers were acquitted in kangaroo court proceedings. Diggs’s presence in Mississippi demonstrated solidarity with (and hope for) many local African Americans. A black reporter covering the trial recalled that Diggs “made a difference down there…people lined up to see him. They had never seen a black member of Congress. Blacks came by the truckloads. Never before had a member of Congress put his life on the line protecting the constitutional rights of blacks.”89
Diggs, who earlier had pushed for a U.S. Justice Department probe of the defrauding of black Mississippi voters, proposed to unseat the Members of the Mississippi delegation to the U.S. House on the grounds that they were elected by only a fraction of the state’s voters.90
Diggs’s performance contrasted sharply with that of William Dawson, who represented the Chicago district where Till’s mother lived. In an open 1956 letter to Dawson, the NAACP questioned his failure to comment publicly on the Till lynching. Expressing further disappointment with Dawson’s support for reform legislation as a member of the Democratic committee writing the civil rights plank for the national party, the NAACP denounced him for “silence, compromise, and meaningless moderation” on civil rights matters.91
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powell_supporting_eisenhower_nps_72-1926.xmlImage courtesy of National Park Service, provided by Dwight David Eisenhower Presidential LibraryOn October 11, 1956, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. announced to reporters his decision to support incumbent Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Known as a political maverick, Powell had backed Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952, but broke with Stevenson in 1956 because of his ambivalent position on civil rights. Powell noted Eisenhower’s “great contribution in the civil rights field.”
Adam Clayton Powell, dubbed “Mr. Civil Rights,” garnered national headlines during the 1940s and 1950s for his “Powell Amendment,” a rider prohibiting federal funds for institutions that promoted or endorsed segregation. Powell attached his amendment to a variety of legislative measures, beginning with a school lunch program bill that passed the House on June 4, 1946. “From then on I was to use this important weapon with success,” Powell recalled, “to bring about opportunities for the good of man and to stop those efforts that would harm democracy’s progress forward.” Beginning in 1955, Powell vowed to attach his rider to all education bills, starting with appropriations for school construction.92
His actions riled southern racial conservatives and stirred unease among otherwise liberal allies concerned that the amendment jeopardized social legislation.
Southern defiance, on display on Capitol Hill, crystallized in a bold proclamation conceived by Senators Russell, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., of Virginia. Titled the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” and known colloquially as the Southern Manifesto, it attacked the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, accusing the Justices of abusing judicial power and trespassing upon states’ rights. Signed on March 12, 1956, by 82 Representatives and 19 Senators (roughly one-fifth of Congress), it urged southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” in the effort to resist the “chaos and confusion” that would result from school desegregation.
Civil Rights Act of 1957
In 1956, partly at the initiative of outside advocacy groups such as the NAACP, proposals by Eisenhower’s Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, and the growing presidential ambitions of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, a civil rights bill began to move through Congress. Southern opponents such as Senators Russell and Eastland, realizing that some kind of legislation was imminent, slowed and weakened reform through the amendment process. The House passed the measure by a wide margin, 279 to 97, though southern opponents managed to excise voting protections from the original language. Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Diggs argued passionately on the House Floor for a strong bill. Powell particularly aimed at southern amendments that preserved trials by local juries because all-white juries (since blacks were excluded from the voting process, they were also barred from jury duty) ensured easy acquittals for white defendants accused of crimes against blacks. “This is an hour for great moral stamina,” Powell told colleagues. “America stands on trial today before the world and communism must succeed if democracy fails…Speak no more concerning the bombed and burned and gutted churches behind the Iron Curtain when here in America behind our ’color curtain’ we have bombed and burned churches and the confessed perpetrators of these crimes go free because of trial by jury.”93 In the Senate, Paul H. Douglas of Illinois and Minority Leader William F. Knowland of California circumvented Eastland’s Judiciary Committee and got the bill onto the floor for debate. Lyndon Johnson played a crucial role, too, discouraging an organized southern filibuster while forging a compromise that allayed southern concern about the bill’s jury and trial provisions.94 On August 29 the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (P.L. 85-315) by a vote of 60 to 15.
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lunch_counter_LC-DIG-ppmsca-08108.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressAfrican-American demonstrators occupied a lunch counter after being refused service in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960. Sit-ins like this one took a toll on segregated businesses across the South. Many establishments relented and ended segregation practices because of the ensuing loss of business.
The resulting law, signed by President Eisenhower in early September 1957, was the first major civil rights measure passed since 1875. The act established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) for two years and created a civil rights division in the Justice Department, but its powers to enforce voting laws and punish the disfranchisement of black voters were feeble, as the commission noted in 1959. A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 (P.L. 86-449)—again significantly weakened by southern opponents—extended the life of the CCR and stipulated that voting and registration records in federal elections must be preserved. However, southerners managed to strike a far-reaching provision to send registrars into southern states to oversee voter enrollment.
Though southern Members were heartened by these successes, consequential internal congressional reforms promised to end obstructionism. In 1961, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas challenged Chairman Howard Smith directly by proposing to expand the Rules Committee by adding three more Members to the roster, a move that was intended to break Smith’s stranglehold over social legislation. Rayburn recruited a group of roughly two dozen northern Republicans who supported the reform and declared their intention to “repudiate” a GOP alliance with southern Democrats “to attempt to narrow the base of our party, to dull its conscience, to transform it into a negative weapon of obstruction.”95
The forces of reform prevailed by a margin of 217 to 212. The support of moderate Republicans presaged the development of a coalition that would undercut the power of southern racial conservatives and pass sweeping civil rights laws.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lincoln_statue_overlooking_march_LC-DIG-ppmsca-08109.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressAs the finale to the massive August 28, 1963, March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This photograph showed the view from over the shoulder of the Abraham Lincoln statue while marchers gathered along the length of the Reflecting Pool.
Pressure for change, as it did throughout the Second Reconstruction, came from outside the institution. By 1963, the need for a major civil rights bill weighed heavily on Congress and the John F. Kennedy administration. Protests at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 were followed in 1961 by attempts to desegregate interstate buses by the Freedom Riders, who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a large protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that was greeted with brutality. Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor unleashed police dogs, and high-powered hoses on protesters. The images coming out of the Deep South horrified Americans from all walks of life. In August 1963, King and other civil rights leaders organized the largest-ever march on Washington, DC. Addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the world-renowned leader of a movement that rivaled that of his model, Mahatma Gandhi, delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
A reluctant Kennedy administration began coordinating with congressional allies to pass a significant reform bill. Freshman Representative Gus Hawkins observed in May 1963 that the federal government had a special responsibility to ensure that federal dollars did not underwrite segregation practices in schools, facilities for vocational education, libraries, and other municipal entities, saying, “those who dip their hands in the public treasury should not object if a little democracy sticks to their fingers.” Otherwise “do we not harm our own fiscal integrity, and allow room in our conduct for other abuses of public funds?”96
After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, invoked the slain President’s memory to prod reluctant legislators to produce a civil rights measure.
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_celler_emanuel_lcusz62-135684.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressAs chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler of New York was a prime mover behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the House, a bipartisan bill supported by Judiciary Chairman Celler and Republican William McCulloch of Ohio worked its way to passage. McCulloch and Celler forged a coalition of moderate Republicans and northern Democrats while deflecting southern amendments determined to cripple the bill. Standing in the well of the House defending his controversial amendment and the larger civil rights bill, Representative Powell described the legislation as “a great moral issue…what we are doing [today] is a part of an act of God.”97
On February 10, 1964, the House, voting 290 to 130, approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964; 138 Republicans helped pass the bill. In scope and effect, the act was among the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in U.S. history. It contained sections prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations (Title II); state and municipal facilities, including schools (Titles III and IV); and—incorporating the Powell Amendment—in any program receiving federal aid (Title V). The act also prohibited discrimination in hiring and employment, creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate workplace discrimination (Title VII).98
Having passed the House, the act faced its biggest hurdle in the Senate. President Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana tapped Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to build Senate support for the measure and fend off the efforts of a determined southern minority to stall it. One historian notes that Humphrey’s assignment amounted to an “audition for the role of Johnson’s running mate in the fall presidential election.”99
Humphrey, joined by Republican Thomas Kuchel of California, performed brilliantly, lining up the support of influential Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. By allaying Dirksen’s unease about the enforcement powers of the EEOC, civil rights proponents then co-opted the support of a large group of midwestern Republicans who followed Dirksen’s lead.100
On June 10, 1964, for the first time in its history, the Senate invoked cloture on a civil rights bill (by a vote of 71 to 29), thus cutting off debate and ending a 75-day filibuster—the longest in the chamber’s history. On June 19, 1964, 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans joined forces to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 73 to 27. President Johnson signed the bill (P.L. 88-352) into law on July 2, 1964.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_voting_rights_act_1965_LBJ_podium_lbj_library_18182.xmlPhotograph by Frank Wolfe, courtesy of the LBJ LibraryOn August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The legislation suspended the use of literacy tests and voter disqualification devices for five years, authorized the use of federal examiners to supervise voter registration in states that used tests or in which less than half the voting-eligible residents registered or voted, directed the U.S. Attorney General to institute proceedings against use of poll taxes, and provided criminal penalties for violations of the act.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dealt the deathblow to southern congressional opposition. Momentum for tougher voting rights legislation—expanding on the provisions of Section I of the 1964 act—built rapidly because of President Johnson’s continued determination and unfolding civil rights protests. On March 7, 1965, marchers led by future U.S. Representative John R. Lewis of Georgia were savagely beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Many of the protestors were kneeling in prayer when state troopers clubbed and gassed them on what would later be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Television cameras captured the onslaught and beamed images into the homes of millions of Americans. As with the brutality in Birmingham, public reaction was swift and, if possible, even more powerful. “The images were stunning—scene after scene of policemen on foot and horseback beating defenseless American citizens,” Lewis wrote years later. “This was a face-off in the most vivid terms between a dignified, composed, completely nonviolent multitude of silent protestors and the truly malevolent force of a heavily armed, hateful battalion of troopers. The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before.”101
After President Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress to speak about the events in Selma, legislative action was swift. A bill moved through both chambers that suspended the use of literacy tests for a five-year period and provided for sending federal poll watchers and voting registrars to states with persistent patterns of voting discrimination. It required Justice Department pre-clearance of any change to election statutes. Finally, the bill made obstructing an individual’s right to vote a federal crime. On May 26, 1965, the Senate passed the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 77 to 19. Among the African-American Members who spoke on behalf of the bill on the House Floor was freshman John Conyers, Jr. Joined by Representatives Diggs, Hawkins, and Powell, Conyers had visited Selma in February 1965 as part of a 15-Member congressional delegation that investigated voting discrimination.102
The experience convinced him that there was ”no alternative but to have the federal Government take a much more positive and specific role in guaranteeing the right to register and vote in all elections…surely this Government cannot relax if even one single American is arbitrarily denied that most basic right of all in a democracy—the right to vote.”103
The House passed the act by a vote of 333 to 85 on July 9, 1965. An amended conference report passed both chambers by wide margins and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-110) into law on August 6, 1965.104
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_trooper_beating_lewis_lcusz62_127732.xmlImage courtesy of Library of CongressBaton-wielding Alabama state troopers waded into a crowd of peaceful civil rights demonstrators led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis (on ground left center, in light coat) on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. Known later as “Bloody Sunday,” images of the violent event shocked millions of Americans from all walks of life and built momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The measure dramatically increased voter registration in the short term. By 1969, 60 percent of all southern blacks were registered. Predictably, the bill’s impact was most dramatic in the Deep South. In Mississippi, for instance, where less than 7 percent of African Americans qualified to vote in 1964, 59 percent were on voter rolls by 1968.105
By 1975, approximately 1.5 million African Americans had registered to vote in the South.106
Coupled with the “one man, one vote” standard, which set off a round of court-ordered redistricting, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reshaped the electoral landscape for African Americans. In southern states, particularly in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis, the creation of districts with a majority of African-American constituents propelled greater numbers of African Americans into Congress by the early 1970s. In northern urban areas, too, the growing influence of black voters reshaped Congress. Blacks constituted a growing percentage of the population of major U.S. cities (20 percent in 1970 versus 12 percent in 1950), partly because in the 1960s whites left the cities in droves for the suburbs.107
In 1968, Louis Stokes (Cleveland), Bill Clay (St. Louis), and Shirley Chisholm (Brooklyn) were elected to Congress from redrawn majority-black districts in which white incumbents chose not to run.108
By 1971, the number of African-American Members in the House was more than double the number who had served in 1965.
Civil Rights Act of 1968
The era’s final major piece of civil rights legislation reflected the changing emphasis of the civil rights movement itself: Having secured a measure of political rights, black leaders now emphasized the importance of equal economic and educational opportunity. Congressional action in this area was measured; the national mood and major events had begun to turn against reform. The ambitious agenda of federal programs known as the Great Society had begun to wane. Initiated by President Johnson in the mid-1960s, these programs were in many ways conceived of as an extension of New Deal reforms. Great Society legislation marked the zenith of federal activism—addressing civil rights, urban development, the environment, health care, education, housing, consumer protection, and poverty. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the administration won the enactment of a number of far-reaching programs, among them several that exist today, such as Medicare, which provides health coverage for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides the poor with access to hospitalization, optional medical insurance, and other health care benefits.109
/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lbj_sign_cra_1968_brooks_lbj_library.xmlPhotograph by Yoichi R. Okamoto, courtesy of the LBJ LibraryPresident Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11, 1968. The act prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of approximately 80 percent of the housing in the U.S. Newly elected Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (fourth from left) attended the signing.
But the cost of the deepening U.S. military commitment in Vietnam rapidly bled dry Great Society programs that, in part, addressed concerns about economic equality raised by black leaders. Moreover, middle-class whites in northern and western states who had empathized with the nonviolent protests of southern blacks were far more skeptical of the civil rights militants who were bent on bringing the movement to their doorsteps, typified by Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and the Black Power movement. Major urban rioting, particularly the devastating 1965 riot in Watts, Los Angeles (in Representative Gus Hawkins’s district) turned mainstream white opinion even further from the cause. Widespread rioting in April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—federal troops were deployed even in Washington, DC—reinforced white alienation. Nevertheless, in early March 1968, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1968 by a 71 to 20 vote. The measure outlawed discrimination in the sale and rental of roughly 80 percent of U.S. housing (the proportion handled by agents and brokers) by 1970 and meted out federal punishment to persons engaged in interstate activities to foment or participate in riots. The bill also extended constitutional rights to Native Americans. Days after King’s murder in Memphis, Tennessee, the House followed the Senate’s lead by a vote of 250 to 172.
Learn more about the House and Civil Rights, specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.