Flickr image credit Ted Eytan
Because large segments of the populace – particularly African-Americans, women, and men without property – have not always been accorded full citizenship rights in the American Republic, civil rights movements, or “freedom struggles,” have been a frequent feature of the nation’s history. In particular, movements to obtain civil rights for black Americans have had special historical significance. Such movements have not only secured citizenship rights for blacks, but have also redefined prevailing conceptions of the nature of civil rights and the role of government in protecting these rights. The most important achievements of African-American civil rights movements have been the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and established the citizenship status of blacks and the judicial decisions and legislation based on these amendments, notably the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moreover, these legal changes greatly affected the opportunities available to women, nonblack minorities, disabled individuals, and other victims of discrimination.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955)
The case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education was actually the name given to five separate cases that were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the issue of segregation in public schools. These cases were Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Boiling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel. While the facts of each case are different, the main issue in each was the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Once again, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund handled these cases.
Although it acknowledged some of the plaintiffs’/plaintiffs claims, a three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court that heard the cases ruled in favor of the school boards. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the cases came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court consolidated all five cases under the name of Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall personally argued the case before the Court. Although he raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the "equal protection clause" of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, relying on sociological tests, such as the one performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other data, he also argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible.
Meeting to decide the case, the Justices of the Supreme Court realized that they were deeply divided over the issues raised. While most wanted to reverse Plessy and declare segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, they had various reasons for doing so. Unable to come to a solution by June 1953 (the end of the Court's 1952-1953 term), the Court decided to rehear the case in December 1953. During the intervening months, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by Gov. Earl Warren of California. After the case was reheard in 1953, Chief Justice Warren was able to do something that his predecessor had not—i.e. bring all of the Justices to agree to support a unanimous decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On May 14, 1954, he delivered the opinion of the Court, stating that "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . ."
Expecting opposition to its ruling, especially in the southern states, the Supreme Court did not immediately try to give direction for the implementation of its ruling. Rather, it asked the attorney generals of all states with laws permitting segregation in their public schools to submit plans for how to proceed with desegregation. After still more hearings before the Court concerning the matter of desegregation, on May 31, 1955, the Justices handed down a plan for how it was to proceed; desegregation was to proceed with "all deliberate speed." Although it would be many years before all segregated school systems were to be desegregated, Brown and Brown II (as the Courts plan for how to desegregate schools came to be called) were responsible for getting the process underway.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The civil rights movement deeply affected American society. Among its most important achievements were two major civil rights laws passed by Congress. These laws ensured constitutional rights for African Americans and other minorities. Although these rights were first guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution immediately after the Civil War, they had never been fully enforced. It was only after years of highly publicized civil rights demonstrations, marches, and violence that American political leaders acted to enforce these rights.
President John F. Kennedy proposed the initial civil rights act. Kennedy faced great personal and political conflicts over this legislation. On the one hand, he was sympathetic to African-American citizens whose dramatic protests highlighted the glaring gap between American ideals and American realities. Kennedy understood that black people deserved the full equality they were demanding. He also knew that racial discrimination in the United States, particularly highly public displays of violence and terror against racial minorities, embarrassed America internationally. Moreover, his civil rights legislation generated considerable support among Northern liberals and moderates as well as millions of African-American voters in states where they could vote without difficulty or intimidation.
On the other hand, Kennedy worried about losing the support of white Southern Democrats, still the main political force in that region. He was especially concerned about his re-election prospects in 1964. Facing strong Southern opposition, a reluctant president finally proposed strong civil rights legislation to Congress, admitting privately to civil rights leaders that street protests had forced his hand.
Johnson and the Civil Rights Bill
Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, changed the political dynamics of the impending civil rights legislation. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy and almost immediately intensified the campaign for a major civil rights bill. Although a Southern politician, he had developed compassion for the courageous struggles of African Americans during the civil rights movement. His personal commitment to ensuring full equality for minority citizens, in fact, surpassed Kennedy’s.
Johnson stood in a better position than his predecessor to push the civil rights legislation through Congress. An extremely accomplished politician, Johnson thoroughly understood Congress and its complex operations. For many years, he had served as the Senate majority leader. With the responsibility to guide legislation through Congress, he had worked with colleagues of both parties and different outlooks. During his service, he mastered the art of compromise, gaining many victories for his party’s legislative agenda. He also developed close relationships with senators and representatives of both political parties. He regularly used that personal knowledge, combined with charm, flattery, and threats, to achieve his legislative goals. This skill proved especially useful in getting Congress to pass a major civil rights bill. President Johnson used another key strategy to pass the civil rights bill. He took advantage of the national sympathy and mourning surrounding Kennedy’s tragic death. In public speeches and private talks, he urged passage of the civil rights act as a lasting legacy to the martyred president. Building widespread public support, he urged religious leaders throughout the nation (especially in the South) to use their influence on behalf of the civil rights act.
The actual battle in Congress took all of Johnson’s political skills. Faced with strong opposition from many Republicans and most Southern Democrats, he resorted to his forceful personal powers. He told Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a major opponent of civil rights legislation, that “if you get in the way, I’m going to run you down.” In the Senate, the president faced a filibuster, a delaying debate that could have killed the entire bill. The filibuster lasted 83 days, the longest in Senate history. But Johnson managed to get the votes to end it. He worked the telephones himself and lobbied personally, “twisting arms” of legislators still unsure of how to vote. Enlisting White House aides, civil rights and labor leaders, and key congressional civil rights advocates, he pulled out all the stops to gain a legislative victory.
Johnson’s persistence and political talents succeeded. On July 2, 1964, he formally signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, using 72 ceremonial pens. Many dignitaries, including Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and several other national civil rights figures, attended the ceremony. This law banned racial discrimination in several areas, including hotels, restaurants, education, and other public accommodations. This landmark act also guaranteed equal job opportunities, fulfilling one major objective of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Many larger Southern businesses had already desegregated in response to sit-ins and other civil rights protests. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 added important legal protections to these political and social developments.
Almost immediately, the new civil rights law came under legal challenge. The owner of an Atlanta motel argued that Congress did not have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to ban segregation in public accommodations. This 216-room establishment, which served an interstate clientele, had long refused to rent rooms to African Americans. When Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States reached the Supreme Court, the court rejected the owner’s argument. It ruled that the commerce clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to enact this type of legislation. Civil rights advocates had achieved their most significant legal victory since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school segregation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
By 1965 concerted efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had proved almost entirely ineffectual. The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism. Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, en route to the state capitol in Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators' resistance to effective voting rights legislation. President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.
Congress determined that the existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment. The legislative hearings showed that the Department of Justice's efforts to eliminate discriminatory election practices by litigation on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process; as soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to commence anew.
President Johnson signed the resulting legislation into law on August 6, 1965. Section 2 of the Act, which closely followed the language of the 15th amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition against the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on the literacy tests on a nationwide basis. Among its other provisions, the Act contained special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest. Under Section 5, jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not implement any change affecting voting until the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the change did not have a discriminatory purpose and would not have a discriminatory effect. In addition, the Attorney General could designate a county covered by these special provisions for the appointment of a federal examiner to review the qualifications of persons who wanted to register to vote. Further, in those counties where a federal examiner was serving, the Attorney General could request that federal observers monitor activities within the county's polling place.
The Voting Rights Act had not included a provision prohibiting poll taxes, but had directed the Attorney General to challenge its use. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia's poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Between 1965 and 1969 the Supreme Court also issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices that required Section 5 review. As the Supreme Court put it in its 1966 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Act:
Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966).