Tuesday, August 28, 2012

1957 Civil Rights Act

It was 55 years ago today that Senator Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat from South Carolina, launched the longest filibuster in American history in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Taking the Senate floor at 8:54 PM on August 28 armed with throat lozenges and malted milk balls, Thurmond would continue speaking, with only brief interruptions for questions from other Senators, until 9:12 PM the next night – a filibuster lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes. This surpassed by almost two hours the previous record set by Oregon Senator Wayne Morse four years prior. During his daylong near-monologue, Thurmond read the election laws of all 48 states, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and his mother’s biscuit recipe.

The Act Thurmond opposed so vehemently was, in the canon of federal civil rights legislation, a minor entry. Though aimed at ensuring suffrage for African-Americans in the South, it did not seek to ban racially discriminatory practices such as the poll tax and dubious “literacy tests” administered in Southern states. The 1957 Civil Rights Act did, however, establish a Civil Rights Division within the U.S. Department of Justice to protect the rights of would-be black voters. Today that division is still known for enforcing federal voting rights, anti-discrimination, and hate crimes laws in federal court. John Doar, a Civil Rights Division lawyer in the 1960s and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division during the Johnson administration, described the division’s early activities and test cases in a 1997 article for the Florida State University Law Review.

The 1957 Civil Rights Act was not nearly the watershed moment for civil rights its 1964 successor – which banned both race and gender discrimination in employment and service – or the 1965 Voting Rights Act would prove to be. Indeed, between 1957 and 1960 black voter registration in the South inched up just three percent, a tiny increase compared to the strides made after 1965. Still, it was the first federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, after which racial laws in the South had taken something of a backward lurch for several generations, and as such, Thurmond spoke for a number of Southern Senators in opposing the Act’s passage. Yet many of his fellow Southerners were angered by Thurmond’s filibuster; they had informally agreed not to filibuster the bill but to water it down instead. Time reported on September 9 that Herman Talmadge, the junior Democratic Senator from Georgia and an ardent segregationist himself, had derided Thurmond’s effort as a “grandstand of longwinded speeches” which could “in the long run wreak unspeakable havoc upon my people.” Even Thurmond’s staffers had not been informed of his plan.

The filibuster, though long, failed to derail a deeply compromised Civil Rights Act. The Senate approved the final bill by a 62-15 vote just hours after Thurmond yielded the floor, and it would pass the House by a 270-97 margin before reaching President Eisenhower’s desk for enactment into law. The Act would be strengthened in 1960 and replaced by further-reaching civil rights legislation over the next decade. Thurmond, however, would continue a long and storied career in the Senate. He became a Republican in September 1964, largely in reaction to the beefed-up Civil Rights Act of that year championed by President Johnson, and served in the Senate until January 3, 2003. Thurmond died later that year, aged 100 and after some 48 years in office. His record for Senate service would be surpassed by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia in 2006, but his filibuster record stands unchallenged, now a relic of an era in which such procedures were far more commonplace than they are today.

1 comment:

Richard Mooney Lawyer said...

Civil Rights is really important to live life securely and without any domination. Every person want to live free life so we follow the law. Nice to read about this Civil Rights Act of 1957. Such a great information about this law. Useful information for all people about there rights. Thanks.

Richard Mooney Attorney