Last week was a writing drought; today I have too many topics to choose from. My final decision was made when I saw a tweet thread from Joy Reid*** that resonated with me, exposed my ignorance, and inspired me to dig further. This is going to be a bare-bones recitation of history that I never learned, but should have. I share it today as information, as well as an object lesson about persistence.
To quote Maya Angelou, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Civil Rights Act of 1957
- The first civil rights bill passed since a Reconstruction-era civil rights bill (1875)
- Arising after Brown v Board of Education, and the resulting white violence against African-Americans, it was intended to ensure the right to vote by all Americans.
- The original language of the bill was substantially weakened under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, James Eastland (D-MS).
- The bill was subject to the longest filibuster ever held (24 hours, 18 minutes) by Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC)
- Because the bill had been so weakened, African-American voting only increased by 3% by 1960; however, the Civil Rights Division was established within the Justice Department.
Civil Rights Act of 1960
- A response to President Eisenhower’s call to Congress to provide legislation in support of civil rights, as well as closing some of the loopholes of the 1957 act.
- The key section was that those with the legal right to vote would not be restricted on the basis of race or color, including registration, casting a ballot, and having the vote counted.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Unable to ignore the direct action in Birmingham, President Kennedy asked for legislation “”giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments”, as well as “greater protection for the right to vote”. Report to the American People on Civil Rights
- After the assassination, President Johnson called for the civil rights legislation as a way to honor the memory of John Kennedy
- Because the recalcitrant James Eastland (D-MS) was still chair of the Senate Judiciary, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) maneuvered to have the bill skip the Judiciary Committee and go straight to the Senate floor for debate.
- Eighteen southern Democrats and one southern Republican worked together to filibuster the bill over the course of 54 days.
- After 54 days, two Democratic and two Republican senators introduced a substitute bill, which while weaker than the House version, was not so weak as to lose House support.
- Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) commenced a 14 hour, 13 minute filibuster of the new bill, but Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) was able to whip the 67 votes necessary to end the filibuster.
- Barred unequal application of voter registration requirements, but did not abolish the concept that voters might have to meet further qualifications (beyond citizenship) in order to vote; i.e. literacy tests were not abolished.
- State and municipal governments were prohibited from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.
- The desegregation of public schools was “encouraged” although busing was specifically outlawed. Provisions for busing only came about later, through a rule established by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
- A prohibition of sex discrimination was added to the bill in an amendment made by Rep. Howard Smith (D-VA); he was greeted with laughter when he proposed the amendment. Despite that, the amendment passed.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
- After the 1964 election, Democrats gained overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, and President Johnson decided to work quietly, but slowly, on voting rights legislation. He intended to hold off on proposing the legislation, because he wanted to focus on his Great Society reforms, and he couldn’t afford to alienate southern Democrats.
- The violence in Selma, Dr. King’s Letter from a Selma Jail (published in the New York Times), and a Malcolm X speech in Selma in which he stated that not all African-Americans supported non-violence, changed the timetable.
- The bill, when introduced, had 46 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors.
- The House version banned poll taxes outright, while the Senate version merely allowed the Attorney General to sue states which used poll taxes as a means to discriminate. An amendment to ban poll taxes, proposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy had failed in the Senate. In the conference committee, the compromise that was finally accepted (and given Dr. King’s blessing) was legislative language provided by the Attorney General stating that poll taxes were unconstitutional and would result in DoJ action against states using a poll tax. It was Dr. King’s endorsement that enabled the compromise to go forward.
- The original bill was introduced on March 17, 1965; President Johnson signed the final bill on August 6, 1965.
As we all know, the VRA has been amended over the years, as well as being gutted by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts. Civil rights legislation will be an ongoing need in a country founded on the principles of white supremacy, but to quote the movement, as well as President Johnson when he announced the push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “We shall overcome.
***The thread which prompted this post:
The Senate has 51 Republicans. To get a veto-proof bill, they would need to get at least 15 Democrats, but probably more like 19 or 20 to account for the tea party right wingers in the R caucus who would probably vote no at all costs and the cowardly flip-floppers who might bail.
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) January 22, 2018