The Civil Rights Act of 1957: History & Significance

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  • 0:01 Brown v. Board of Education
  • 0:48 Southern Jurisdictions
  • 1:33 Contents of the Bill
  • 2:55 Strom Thurmond
  • 3:35 Results
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Civil rights didn't just magically appear at a given date in the United States. Instead, it was a long road to get there. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was an important step on that road, although one that itself proved to be quite weak.

Brown v. Board of Education

After World War II, the civil rights movement picked up significant momentum in the United States. By 1948, Harry Truman had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. However, it was in 1954 that the movement got its first major boost forward with the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, which had ended the idea of separate but equal, the legal concept that permitted segregation in the United States. Across the country, and especially outside of the Deep South, public support grew for desegregation, as many Americans thought the practice was simply wrong. Therefore, it was not surprising that Congress, always happy to win approval from their constituents, began to work on their own civil rights package.

Southern Jurisdictions

One place where the new legislation would prove to be very unpopular was the Deep South. In fact, it had nearly universal condemnation from voters in the region. Now this may sound strange, as after all, more African Americans lived in the South than in any other region, and in many districts, they had significant majorities. However, this lack of support among voters was a key symptom of one of the problems that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 would seek to correct. Due to intimidation and poll taxes, or the requirement to pay a certain fee in order to vote, most blacks in the South were denied the right to vote.

Contents of the Bill

Reports of this sort of discrimination filtered north, and for many, poll taxes seemed to be the perfect problem to solve. There was just one problem, though. The Democratic Party was the Senate's majority party, and they had much of their support from the Deep South. In fact, many members opposed any changes. As a result, the bill had to be weakened by the majority leader of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, in order to be passed. Ironically, nearly a decade later it would be President Lyndon Johnson who would pass the most comprehensive Civil Rights Act in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The bill itself set out to eliminate the poll taxes and intimidation that had kept so many minorities away from the ballet box. Punishment would be swift, including a heavy fine and the threat of jail time. Also, as the law was more administrative in nature, there would be no need for a trial by jury. Sympathetic white juries had saved many intimidators from charges earlier in the century, but the new law would do away with that protection. Just as one does not get a trial by jury for getting a speeding ticket, one would no longer get a trial by jury for intimidating voters.

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