Civil Rights Act of 1957

September 15, 1957 – Mike Wallace Interviews Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus

Governor Orval Faubus

On September 15, 1957, the Mike Wallace Interview show on ABC aired a conversation between host Mike Wallace and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, current Commander-in-Chief of the Arkansas National Guard on duty in front of Little Rock Central High School.  Gov. Faubus had just met with Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, at the President’s request, to clarify his reasons for defying a federal court order to integrate Little Rock High.  Faubus stated that he intended to respect the decisions of the court and fully cooperate and carry out his responsibilities for integrating Arkansas schools.  The Guard, he maintained, had been called out to “keep the peace and order of the community” which was “paramount to all other issues”.

Gov. Faubus told Wallace that at this time “it would not be possible to integrate without disorder and violence” and “the troops will still be on duty in the morning”.  They would be taken off duty only “under a condition of tranquility and general acceptance by the people”, the presence of which it would be his responsibility to determine “on the basis of facts and information that are available to me”.  “Eighty-two percent of the people agreed that disorder and violence would have occurred, had not I taken the action which I did,” Faubus claimed.

Wallace pressed Faubus for documentation of his claims regarding incipient violence, but Faubus refused to reveal the material he said he had turned over to the FBI, pending possible court litigation.

Wallace then asked Gov. Faubus why he had not ordered the Arkansas Guard to protect the African-American children and enable them to enter the schools, rather than prevent their entry.  Faubus replied that “the best way to prevent the violence was to remove the cause”.  Faubus pointed out that other school districts in Arkansas, the state colleges, and local transportation systems had all integrated without interference on his part because they were able to do so peacefully.  Not so Little Rock.

Faubus stated, “malice, envy, hate is deplorable, in any place or in any circumstances, but as President Eisenhower has said himself, you can’t change the hearts of people by law . . . all I’ve ever asked for, is some time for the situation to change for it to become acceptable, so that there would not be disorder and violence.  If [integration] is right, it will come about.  So, why should we be so impatient as to want to force it, because force begets force, hate begets hate, malice begets malice.”

Faubus also proclaimed his belief that “some of the finest citizens we have in Arkansas are Negro citizens and many of them have most responsible positions and they carry them out with credit to themselves and the State and the Nation and the citizenry as a whole.  I believe that each person should be judged upon his individual merits and that it should not apply to races, or classes or groups.”

Image Credit: Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

September 9, 1957 – Civil Rights Triumph and Tragedy

Crowd in the street after Hattie Cotton School bombing, September, 1957.

On September 9, 1957, two earth-shaking events occurred in the history of American civil rights.

In Washington, DC, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important milestone on the road to equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.

In Nashville, Tennessee, following the first day of school in which 13 six-year-old African-American children entered first grade, a bomb exploded and completely destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School.

The Nashville school system was slowly, grudgingly complying with Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 which declared racial segregation in public schools a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  Nashville’s plan called for a “stairstep” road to integration, allowing admission of 13 African-American first-graders into previously all-white schools.  Gradually, each year, another grade would be integrated so that at the end of 12 years, African-American students would receive high school diplomas along with privileged whites.  In 1954, there were four separate school systems in Nashville, two overlapping districts in the central city, and two in the suburbs.  One of each pair was tacitly designated for whites, the other for African-Americans.  These districts were by no stretch of the imagination equal; facilities were grossly unequal by almost every measure.

Three tortuous years later, parents of white students were boycotting the first day of school in protest of even the barest beginnings of desegregation.  Angry, vicious words were spoken by visitor John Kasper of New Jersey, who was jailed and charged with incitement to riot.  Mayor Ben West and school officials stood by their decision to admit the new students.  Following the explosion and destruction at Hattie Cotton, one school official told Time Magazine, “This is no longer a matter of segregation or desegregation.  This is a matter of sheer lawlessness.  We’re up against thugs.”

Repairs were made to Hattie Cotton Elementary School and it reopened in January, 1958.  It remains open to this day.

Image Credit: Nashville Public Library and Emory University Libraries

August 29, 1957 – The Senate Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1957

United States Senate Chambers

On August 29, 1957, the United States Senate passed the final version of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  The first civil rights legislation enacted since the Reconstruction period, the amended act replaced an initial version first proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on March 11, 1956.  The initial act went through torturous proceedings and changes before it was approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President on September 9th.

The final five-part act was primarily a voting rights act.  It did not create new voting rights, but initiated a greater federal role in protecting existing voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities.  Part I provided for the creation of a six-member bipartisan Commission of Civil Rights who were empowered, among other duties, to investigate any allegations 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”.  Part II created the position of a new assistant attorney general and led in December 1957 to the formation of the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.  Part III conferred federal court jurisdiction over civil suits that could address and remedy civil rights violations.

Part IV provided significant federal enforcement powers to prohibit actions by any person designed to “intimidate, threaten, [or] coerce . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right [of any person] to vote as he may choose”.  Part IV also authorized the attorney general to initiate civil lawsuits to provide permanent or temporary injunctions or restraining orders to enforce the ban on racially discriminatory denials of the right to vote.  Part V, which had caused so much dissent in the Senate, allowed for enforcement of Part IV by trial in federal court.  Original versions of the act had only provided for trial by a federal judge; the Southern senators forced a compromise which allowed trial by jury on request.  They wanted to ensure the right for white southerners to verdicts from a jury of their white peers.

Compromises and amendments allowed the 1957 Civil Rights Act to pass, but stripped it of real power.  Actual registration and voting by African-Americans did not increase substantially after its passage.  The act did, however, pave the way to more effective legislation in 1964 and 1965 to secure African-American voting rights, housing rights, and an end to legal segregation.

Image Credit: Architect of the Capitol website

August 28, 1957 – Senator Strom Thurmond’s Famous Filibuster

Sen. Strom Thurmond addresses the Senate, August 28, 1957.

On August 28, 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond, D-SC, began the longest filibuster in Senate history in an attempt to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  His one-man act lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes.  Cots were brought in for sleepy fellow legislators as Thurmond read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and President George Washington’s Farewell Address.  The clock ticked as Strom pontificated on random issues, shared his grandmother’s biscuit recipe, and recited entries from the phone book.

The final version of the civil rights legislation awaiting vote by the Senate was the result of sustained conflict and compromise, both between the Democratic and Republican parties, and within the Democratic party itself.  Senate President Lyndon Johnson, recognizing the mood of the country – even in the South – had paved the way to a version of the bill palatable to most of his fellow Southern senators.  On the day of Thurmond’s last ditch oratory attempt to stop the inevitable, most Southern senators were embarrassed and upset by Thurmond’s actions, which they felt would make them look bad to their constituents.  They had agreed, as part of the final compromise, not to filibuster the bill.

Thurmond, as usual, went his own way.  He was a highly decorated veteran of World War II, serving in the US Army and taking part in the Normandy invasion.  He was opinionated and vocal on numerous issues throughout his life and career.  In 1964 he switched party alliances and supported Republicans Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  He later moderated his views and voted in favor of increased rights for African-Americans, but defended his earlier segregationist leanings as support for states’ rights.  He is the only senator to reach 100 years of age while still in office and was the Senate’s second-longest serving senator in its history.

Image Credit: AP

July 28, 1957 – “The Voice of the White South” on The Mike Wallace Interview Show


Senator James Eastland

Senator James Eastland, D-Mississippi

On July 28, 1957, Mike Wallace interviewed anti-civil rights Senator James Eastland of Mississippi on his CBS show.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights act with the goal of ensuring all African-Americans could exercise their right to vote, was under consideration in the Senate.  Sen. Eastland headed up the judiciary committee, where the bill was in the process of being significantly altered to achieve compromise between pro- and anti-rights factions.  Wallace refrained from questioning Eastland about the pending bill, seeking his opinions on segregation, slavery, the Soviet Union, voting rights laws, and the Ku Klux Klan during the hour-length show.

In this post, I will quote Eastland accurately, as offensive as that may be.  Wallace used the term “Negro” to refer to African-American citizens in 1957; Eastland used both “Negro” and “Nigra”.

Sen. Eastland’s statements included:

“This doctrine of the separation of the races has been involved over many years by both races.  It’s not something that one race has imposed on another race.”

“After the south was defeated [in the Civil War], when the white people were disenfranchised and could not vote, the first reconstruction legislature of my state controlled by members of the Nigra race passed three laws: one, that there be segregation on trains and in public transportation; two, that there be a separate school system; three they levied a poll tax; four, they made it a felony for the races to intermarry and provided a life sentence in the penitentiary for one who crossed that line.”

“The vast majority of Negroes want their own schools, their own hospitals, their own churches, their own restaurants.”

“I’m suggesting . . . 99% of Negroes in the south want segregation, certainly.”

“The war between the states was caused by other reasons [than the abolition of slavery].”

“I don’t think . . . where there is a real racial problem . . . that [school integration] will work.”

“[Negroes] do not vote [in Mississippi] because they have a long history of Republicanism, they are members of the Republican Party, and of course they cannot vote in the Democratic primary which is the election in our state.  The Republican Party doesn’t even run candidates.”

“Segregation in the south . . . is to protect both races.”

And, finally, Wallace asked, “Do you think, Senator, the day will come in your lifetime when we will see an integrated south?”

Eastland’s reply: “No.”

Image Credit: Mississippi Department of Archives and History