The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968
The broad period from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction,” consisted of a grass-roots civil rights movement coupled with gradual but progressive actions by the Presidents, the federal courts, and Congress to provide full political rights for African Americans and to begin to redress longstanding economic and social inequities. While African-American Members of Congress from this era played prominent roles in advocating for reform, it was largely the efforts of everyday Americans who protested segregation that prodded a reluctant Congress to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.76
About this objectHoward Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, routinely used his influential position to thwart civil rights legislation. Smith often shuttered committee operations by retreating to his rural farm to avoid deliberations on pending reform bills.
Several factors prevented the few African Americans in Congress from playing prominent legislative roles in institutional efforts to pass the major acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965. Black Members were too scarce to alter institutional processes or form a consequential voting bloc. Until the fall 1964 elections, there were only five African Americans in Congress: Dawson, Powell, Diggs, Nix, and Hawkins. John Conyers joined the House in 1965 and Brooke entered the Senate in 1967. These new Members had a limited amount of influence, although Hawkins scored a major success as a freshman when he helped shape the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a member of Powell’s Education and Labor Committee, and Brooke helped secure the housing anti-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 during his first term in the Senate. Yet while they were determined, energetic, and impassioned, there were too few African Americans in Congress to drive a policy agenda. Moreover, black Members themselves disagreed as to the best method to achieve civil rights advances, and individual legislative styles, conflicting loyalties (party versus activist agendas), and personality differences circumscribed their ability to craft a black issues agenda. Consequently, their uncoordinated and sporadic actions mitigated their potential effect. At key moments, some were excluded from the process or were inexplicably absent. Their symbolic leader, Powell, was too polarizing a figure for House leaders to accord him a highly visible role in the process. This perhaps explains why the Harlem Representative, despite his public passion for racial justice and his ability to deliver legislation through the Education and Labor Committee, was sometimes unusually detached from the legislative process.82
The Senate’s anti-majoritarian structure magnified the power of southern racial conservatives. In contrast to the rules of the House, which strictly limited Members’ ability to speak on the floor, the Senate’s long-standing tradition of allowing Members to speak without interruption played into the hands of obstructionists. The filibuster, a Senate practice that allowed a Senator or a group of Senators to prevent a vote on a bill, became the chief weapon of civil rights opponents. In this era, too, Senate rules were modified, raising the bar needed to achieve cloture, i.e., to end debate and move to a vote on legislation. From 1949 to 1959, cloture required the approval of two-thirds of the chamber’s entire membership, rather than two-thirds of the Members who were present. Influential southern Senators held key positions in the upper chamber and, not surprisingly, were among the most skilled parliamentarians. Richard Russell of Georgia, a master of procedure, framed the opposition’s defense on constitutional concerns about federal interference in states’ issues, making him a more palatable figure than many of the Senate’s earlier racial conservatives such as Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman or Theodore Bilbo.84 Russell attracted northern and western Republicans to his cause based on their opposition to the expansion of federal powers that would be necessary to enforce civil rights in the South. Mississippi’s James Eastland, another procedural tactician, who presided over the Judiciary Committee beginning in March 1956, bragged that he had special pockets tailored into his suits where he stuffed bothersome civil rights bills. Between 1953 and 1965 more than 122 civil rights measures were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but only one was reported back to the full Senate.85
Racial violence in the South, which amounted to domestic terrorism against blacks, continued into the middle of the 20th century and powerfully shaped public opinion. Though more sporadic than before, beatings, cross burnings, lynchings, and myriad other forms of white-on-black intimidation went largely unpunished. Nearly 200 African Americans are thought to have been lynched between 1929 and 1964, but that figure likely underrepresents the actual number.87 In August 1955, a particularly gruesome killing galvanized activists and shocked a largely complacent nation. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, was shot in the head, and his lifeless body was dumped off a bridge, for the alleged “crime” of whistling at a white woman. Determined to expose the brutality of the act, his mother allowed the national press to photograph the boy’s remains, and thousands of mourners streamed past the open casket.
Charles Diggs’s visible role in the wake of the Till lynching “catapulted” him into the “national spotlight.”88 At considerable personal risk, Diggs accompanied Till’s mother to the September 1955 trial at which the two accused murderers were acquitted in kangaroo court proceedings. Diggs’s presence in Mississippi demonstrated solidarity with (and hope for) many local African Americans. A black reporter covering the trial recalled that Diggs “made a difference down there…people lined up to see him. They had never seen a black member of Congress. Blacks came by the truckloads. Never before had a member of Congress put his life on the line protecting the constitutional rights of blacks.”89 Diggs, who earlier had pushed for a U.S. Justice Department probe of the defrauding of black Mississippi voters, proposed to unseat the Members of the Mississippi delegation to the U.S. House on the grounds that they were elected by only a fraction of the state’s voters.90 Diggs’s performance contrasted sharply with that of William Dawson, who represented the Chicago district where Till’s mother lived. In an open 1956 letter to Dawson, the NAACP questioned his failure to comment publicly on the Till lynching. Expressing further disappointment with Dawson’s support for reform legislation as a member of the Democratic committee writing the civil rights plank for the national party, the NAACP denounced him for “silence, compromise, and meaningless moderation” on civil rights matters.91
Southern defiance, on display on Capitol Hill, crystallized in a bold proclamation conceived by Senators Russell, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., of Virginia. Titled the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” and known colloquially as the Southern Manifesto, it attacked the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, accusing the Justices of abusing judicial power and trespassing upon states’ rights. Signed on March 12, 1956, by 82 Representatives and 19 Senators (roughly one-fifth of Congress), it urged southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” in the effort to resist the “chaos and confusion” that would result from school desegregation.
Civil Rights Act of 1957
In 1956, partly at the initiative of outside advocacy groups such as the NAACP, proposals by Eisenhower’s Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, and the growing presidential ambitions of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, a civil rights bill began to move through Congress. Southern opponents such as Senators Russell and Eastland, realizing that some kind of legislation was imminent, slowed and weakened reform through the amendment process. The House passed the measure by a wide margin, 279 to 97, though southern opponents managed to excise voting protections from the original language. Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Diggs argued passionately on the House Floor for a strong bill. Powell particularly aimed at southern amendments that preserved trials by local juries because all-white juries (since blacks were excluded from the voting process, they were also barred from jury duty) ensured easy acquittals for white defendants accused of crimes against blacks. “This is an hour for great moral stamina,” Powell told colleagues. “America stands on trial today before the world and communism must succeed if democracy fails…Speak no more concerning the bombed and burned and gutted churches behind the Iron Curtain when here in America behind our ’color curtain’ we have bombed and burned churches and the confessed perpetrators of these crimes go free because of trial by jury.”93 In the Senate, Paul H. Douglas of Illinois and Minority Leader William F. Knowland of California circumvented Eastland’s Judiciary Committee and got the bill onto the floor for debate. Lyndon Johnson played a crucial role, too, discouraging an organized southern filibuster while forging a compromise that allayed southern concern about the bill’s jury and trial provisions.94 On August 29 the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (P.L. 85-315) by a vote of 60 to 15.
Though southern Members were heartened by these successes, consequential internal congressional reforms promised to end obstructionism. In 1961, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas challenged Chairman Howard Smith directly by proposing to expand the Rules Committee by adding three more Members to the roster, a move that was intended to break Smith’s stranglehold over social legislation. Rayburn recruited a group of roughly two dozen northern Republicans who supported the reform and declared their intention to “repudiate” a GOP alliance with southern Democrats “to attempt to narrow the base of our party, to dull its conscience, to transform it into a negative weapon of obstruction.”95 The forces of reform prevailed by a margin of 217 to 212. The support of moderate Republicans presaged the development of a coalition that would undercut the power of southern racial conservatives and pass sweeping civil rights laws.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
A reluctant Kennedy administration began coordinating with congressional allies to pass a significant reform bill. Freshman Representative Gus Hawkins observed in May 1963 that the federal government had a special responsibility to ensure that federal dollars did not underwrite segregation practices in schools, facilities for vocational education, libraries, and other municipal entities, saying, “those who dip their hands in the public treasury should not object if a little democracy sticks to their fingers.” Otherwise “do we not harm our own fiscal integrity, and allow room in our conduct for other abuses of public funds?”96 After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, invoked the slain President’s memory to prod reluctant legislators to produce a civil rights measure.
Having passed the House, the act faced its biggest hurdle in the Senate. President Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana tapped Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to build Senate support for the measure and fend off the efforts of a determined southern minority to stall it. One historian notes that Humphrey’s assignment amounted to an “audition for the role of Johnson’s running mate in the fall presidential election.”99 Humphrey, joined by Republican Thomas Kuchel of California, performed brilliantly, lining up the support of influential Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. By allaying Dirksen’s unease about the enforcement powers of the EEOC, civil rights proponents then co-opted the support of a large group of midwestern Republicans who followed Dirksen’s lead.100 On June 10, 1964, for the first time in its history, the Senate invoked cloture on a civil rights bill (by a vote of 71 to 29), thus cutting off debate and ending a 75-day filibuster—the longest in the chamber’s history. On June 19, 1964, 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans joined forces to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 73 to 27. President Johnson signed the bill (P.L. 88-352) into law on July 2, 1964.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
After President Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress to speak about the events in Selma, legislative action was swift. A bill moved through both chambers that suspended the use of literacy tests for a five-year period and provided for sending federal poll watchers and voting registrars to states with persistent patterns of voting discrimination. It required Justice Department pre-clearance of any change to election statutes. Finally, the bill made obstructing an individual’s right to vote a federal crime. On May 26, 1965, the Senate passed the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 77 to 19. Among the African-American Members who spoke on behalf of the bill on the House Floor was freshman John Conyers, Jr. Joined by Representatives Diggs, Hawkins, and Powell, Conyers had visited Selma in February 1965 as part of a 15-Member congressional delegation that investigated voting discrimination.102 The experience convinced him that there was ”no alternative but to have the federal Government take a much more positive and specific role in guaranteeing the right to register and vote in all elections…surely this Government cannot relax if even one single American is arbitrarily denied that most basic right of all in a democracy—the right to vote.”103 The House passed the act by a vote of 333 to 85 on July 9, 1965. An amended conference report passed both chambers by wide margins and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-110) into law on August 6, 1965.104
Coupled with the “one man, one vote” standard, which set off a round of court-ordered redistricting, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reshaped the electoral landscape for African Americans. In southern states, particularly in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis, the creation of districts with a majority of African-American constituents propelled greater numbers of African Americans into Congress by the early 1970s. In northern urban areas, too, the growing influence of black voters reshaped Congress. Blacks constituted a growing percentage of the population of major U.S. cities (20 percent in 1970 versus 12 percent in 1950), partly because in the 1960s whites left the cities in droves for the suburbs.107 In 1968, Louis Stokes (Cleveland), Bill Clay (St. Louis), and Shirley Chisholm (Brooklyn) were elected to Congress from redrawn majority-black districts in which white incumbents chose not to run.108 By 1971, the number of African-American Members in the House was more than double the number who had served in 1965.
Civil Rights Act of 1968
The era’s final major piece of civil rights legislation reflected the changing emphasis of the civil rights movement itself: Having secured a measure of political rights, black leaders now emphasized the importance of equal economic and educational opportunity. Congressional action in this area was measured; the national mood and major events had begun to turn against reform. The ambitious agenda of federal programs known as the Great Society had begun to wane. Initiated by President Johnson in the mid-1960s, these programs were in many ways conceived of as an extension of New Deal reforms. Great Society legislation marked the zenith of federal activism—addressing civil rights, urban development, the environment, health care, education, housing, consumer protection, and poverty. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the administration won the enactment of a number of far-reaching programs, among them several that exist today, such as Medicare, which provides health coverage for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides the poor with access to hospitalization, optional medical insurance, and other health care benefits.109
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