In praise of mild reforms
PAUL DOUGLAS, the great liberal senator from Illinois, was despondent over passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, enacted by Congress 50 years ago this month. He told friends the bill was "like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death."
The new law, the first civil rights legislation of the 20th century, dejected other liberals. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon derided it as "a corpse."
Civil rights leaders, who had lobbied for much stronger voting rights,
dismissed the bill as "half a loaf."
The 1957 bill is a discounted and forgotten stepchild of the civil rights movement, accorded lowly status when compared with its more impressive younger siblings, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yet at its half-century mark, the much-disparaged 1957 law is worthy of celebration. It paved the way for subsequent, stronger rights legislation by giving lawmakers confidence that voting for once-radical ideas wouldn't make the sky fall. The law's passage cleared the way for solid progress on the most important social issue of the 20th century.
The bill provided some mild voting rights protections, including a provision allowing the US Justice Department to intervene in state and local voting-rights cases. It also created the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department and established the US Commission on Civil Rights. These were only minor advances. So critics saw only an emasculated voting rights bill, stripped of its toughest provisions by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, whose dogged efforts to prevent a Southern filibuster resulted in amendments to dilute it.
Yet in some ways, the actual provisions of the 1957 law were irrelevant. Nothing called "civil rights" had even been allowed a vote in the Senate since 1875. The last civil rights laws had been passed during Reconstruction, only to be eviscerated by the US Supreme Court.
Johnson's achievement in 1957 was remarkable. The Texan persuaded fellow southerners to forgo their usual filibuster and permit a debate and a vote. That alone would have been historic. The bill's passage was a result of Johnson's legendary persuasive skills and his determination to add a civil rights bill to his record as the 1960 presidential race approached.
Therefore, what Johnson and his allies produced was not a finished work of
art, but rather the canvas upon which the progressively stronger legislation
would be painted. The tougher 1964 act would never have passed in 1957. As the
pragmatic Johnson understood, black Americans would only gain their full rights
through a frustrating but necessary process of incremental legislative steps.
Their change of heart was partly a function of politics. Despite severe
impediments, 1.2 million blacks in the South -- about a quarter of those of
voting age -- were on voting rolls in 1957.