voting rights

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

June 17, 1957 – The Tuskegee Boycott Begins

 

On June 17, 1957, African-American residents of the city of Tuskegee resolved to stop patronizing white-owned businesses in what came to be called the Tuskegee Boycott.  The population of highly segregated Tuskegee, Alabama, home of the famous Tuskegee Institute (founded to educate newly freed slaves) and the Tuskegee Airmen (the first squadron of African-American pilots in the military), was about 6700 at the time, approximately 70%, or 4800, were African-American.  The white governing minority, afraid that voter registration of the African-American population might catch up and surpass the white voters (in spite of the intentional slowdown of voter registration reviews by the all-white Board of Registrars), decided it was time to redraw the city boundaries.  State Sen. Sam Engelhardt, Jr. proposed legislation to reduce the geographic size of Tuskegee, eliminating the current northwest quadrant where Tuskegee Institute, and the mostly African-American community surrounding it, were located.  The legislature passed the gerrymandering bill and sent it to Governor James Folsom for approval.

Tuskegee GerrymanderThe response of the African-American community was to vote with their dollars, if they were going to be denied the right to vote by ballot.  In a rally at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Tuskegee Institute’s Prof. Charles Gomillion proposed,

“We will buy goods and services only from those who will recognize us as first-class citizens.  They may hate our guts, but they will respect us.  We can hold out longer than they.  We can form our own businesses if necessary.  We will continue as long as we have to.”

A week into the boycott, white merchants were not yet “openly alarmed” but their businesses were hurting “more than they will admit”.  Prof. Gomillion summed up the sentiment of the African-American community in this way:

“They are hurt to think this could happen.  They are resentful and disgusted. In the past two years, only four colored persons have been examined by the Board of Registrars which grants voting certificates.  For years the board has followed the practice of meeting to register white voters, then disband when colored persons try to appear before it.”

Image Credit: U.S. Supreme Court