The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968

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During the period from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, often referred to as America’s “Second Reconstruction,” the nation began to correct civil and human rights abuses that had lingered in American society for a century. A grassroots civil rights movement coupled with gradual but progressive actions by Presidents, the federal courts, and Congress eventually provided more complete political rights for African Americans and began 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

Herblock Cartoon/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_truman_cartoon_fair_deal_civil_rights_herblock_1949_LC-USZ62-127332.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A Herblock cartoon from March 1949 depicts a glum-looking President Harry S. Truman and “John Q. Public” inspecting worm-ridden apples representing Truman’s Fair Deal policies such as civil rights and rent controls. The alliance of conservative southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress who successfully blocked many of Truman’s initiatives is portrayed by the worm labeled “Coalition.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, executive action, rather than legislative initiatives, set the pace for measured movement toward desegregation. President Harry S. Truman “expanded on Roosevelt’s tentative steps toward racial moderation and reconciliation,” wrote one historian of the era. Responding to civil rights advocates, Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Significantly, the committee’s October 1947 report, “To Secure These Rights,” provided civil rights proponents in Congress with a legislative blueprint for much of the next two decades. Among its recommendations were the creation of a permanent FEPC, the establishment of a permanent Civil Rights Commission, the creation of a civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice, and the enforcement of federal anti-lynching laws and desegregation in interstate transportation. In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military.77

The backlash to Truman’s civil rights policies contributed to the unraveling of the solid Democratic South. A faction of southern Democrats, upset with the administration’s efforts, split to form the States’ Rights Democratic Party, a conservative party that sought to preserve and maintain the system of segregation. Also known as the Dixiecrats, they nominated South Carolina Governor—and future U.S. Senator—Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate in 1948.78

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, largely cautious and incremental in his approach, followed FDR’s pattern. To serve as his Attorney General, he appointed Herbert Brownell, a progressive to whom he gave wide discretion. Eisenhower also appointed California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, preparing the way for a series of landmark civil rights cases decided by the liberal Warren court. Though hesitant to override the states on civil rights matters, President Eisenhower promoted equality in the federal arena—desegregating Washington, DC, overseeing the integration of the military, and promoting minority rights in federal contracts.79

Edward Brooke Takes Oath of Office/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_brooke_edwin_nara_306-PSD-67-243.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Sworn in to the United States Senate on January 3, 1967, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (second from right) became the first black Senator since 1881. Vice President Hubert Humphrey administers the Oath of Office, while Senators Mike Mansfield of Montana, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy of Massachusetts observe.
The federal courts also carved out a judicial beachhead for civil rights activists. In Smith v. Allwright, the U.S. Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, outlawed the white primary, which, by excluding blacks from participating in the Democratic Party primary in southern states, had effectively disenfranchised them since the early 1900s.80

A decade later, the high court under Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a case that tested the segregation of school facilities in Topeka, Kansas. Brown sparked a revolution in civil rights with its plainspoken ruling that separate was inherently unequal. “In the field of public education, separate but equal has no place,” the Justices declared.81

Then, in the early 1960s, the Supreme Court rendered a string of decisions known as the “reapportionment cases” that fundamentally changed the voting landscape for African Americans. In no uncertain terms, the court required that representation in federal and state legislatures be based substantially on population. Baker v. Carr upheld lawsuits that challenged districts apportioned to enforce voting discrimination against minorities. Gray v. Sanders invalidated Georgia’s county unit voting system, giving rise to the concept “one man, one vote.” Two decisions in 1964, Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims, proved seminal. The court nullified Georgia’s unequal congressional districts in Wesberry while validating the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision for equal representation for equal numbers of people in each district. In Reynolds the Supreme Court solidified the “one man, one vote” concept in an 8 to 1 decision that expressly linked the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to the guarantee that each citizen had equal weight in the election of state legislators.82

Howard Smith/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_howard_smith_hc_2002_017_004.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Howard 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.
Congress lagged behind the presidency, the judiciary, and, often, public sentiment during much of the postwar civil rights movement.83 Southern conservatives still held the levers of power on Capitol Hill. Southerners continued to exert nearly untrammeled influence as committee chairmen—coinciding with the apex of committee power in Congress—in an era when Democrats controlled the House almost exclusively. In the 84th Congress (1955–1957), for instance, when Democrats regained the majority after a brief period of Republican control, southern Members largely unsympathetic to black civil rights chaired 12 of the 19 House committees, including some of the most influential panels: Education and Labor, Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Rules, and Ways and Means.84 The powerful conservative coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans that had arisen during the late 1930s against the economic and social programs of the New Deal continued to impede a broad array of social legislation.

Several factors hindered the few African Americans in Congress from leading efforts to pass the major civil rights acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965. Foremost, black Members of Congress were too scarce to form a voting bloc powerful enough to change how the institution worked. 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 limited influence. Hawkins, however, 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.

Other factors also limited their influence. Black Members had different legislative styles, different personalities, and disagreed as to the best method to achieve civil rights advances. Some followed the party line while others took their cues from activists outside Congress. 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.85

Rosa Parks/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_rosa_parks_LC-USZ62-111235.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress As an NAACP activist in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in 1955. Her act of civil disobedience galvanized the U.S. civil rights movement. Congress later honored Parks with a Congressional Gold Medal, made her the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda after her death, and commissioned a statue of her which is displayed prominently in National Statuary Hall. Above, Parks rides on a desegregated bus.
With few well-placed allies, civil rights initiatives faced an imposing gauntlet in a congressional committee system stacked with segregationist southern conservatives. For most of this period, the House Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Emanuel Celler, offered reformers one of the few largely friendly and liberal forums. On the House Floor, a group of progressive liberals and moderate Republicans, including Celler, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Jacob Javits of New York, Hugh D. Scott of Pennsylvania, Frances Bolton of Ohio, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, emerged as civil rights advocates. Case (1954), Javits (1956), and Scott (1958) were later elected to the Senate and influenced that chamber’s civil rights agenda as well. But no matter how much support the rank-and-file membership provided, any measure that passed out of Judiciary was sent to the House Rules Committee, which directed legislation onto the floor and structured bills for debate. Chaired by arch segregationist Howard Smith of Virginia, this hugely influential panel became the killing ground for a long parade of civil rights proposals. Smith watered down certain bills and refused to consider others. He often shuttered committee operations, retreating to his farm in Virginia’s horse country to stall deliberations. When he explained one of his absences by noting that he needed to inspect a burned-down barn, Leo Allen of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee, remarked, “I knew the Judge was opposed to the civil rights bill. But I didn’t think he would commit arson to beat it.”86

The Senate’s anti-majoritarian structure magnified the power of pro-segregation conservatives. In contrast to the rules of the House, which strictly limited Members’ ability to speak on the floor, the Senate’s longstanding 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 civil rights opponents’ chief weapon. In this era, too, the Senate modified its rules, raising the bar needed to achieve cloture—the practice of ending debate to a vote on legislation. From 1949 to 1959, cloture required the approval of two-thirds of the Senate’s entire membership rather than two-thirds of the Senators who were present.

As in the House, influential southern Senators held key positions and, not surprisingly, were among the most skilled parliamentarians. Richard B. Russell Jr. of Georgia, a master of procedure, framed his opposition around constitutional concerns about federal interference in state issues, making him a more palatable figure than many of the Senate’s earlier diehard segregationists such as Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman or Theodore Bilbo.87 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, the Senate Judiciary Committee killed almost every single one of the more than 122 civil rights measures the Senate considered during those 12 years.88

Petition to End Southern Violence/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_petition_to_eisenhower_signing_end_to_violence_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In August 1955, a Chicago teenager, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Mississippi while visiting family. Till was lynched for the alleged “crime” of allegedly whistling at a white woman. The episode riveted national attention on violence against blacks in the South. Across the nation, groups like the Metropolitan Community Church of Chicago, pictured here, signed petitions to President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemning the violence.
Despite congressional intransigence, the nonviolent civil rights movement and the vicious southern backlash against it transformed public opinion. Support for the passage of major civil rights legislation grew in Congress during the mid-1950s; this was due in large measure to events outside the Capitol, particularly the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the rise of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In Montgomery, Alabama, local activists led by King—then a 27-year-old Baptist preacher—launched a boycott against the city’s segregated bus system. The protest began after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a member of the NAACP who defied local ordinances in December 1955 by refusing to yield her seat on the bus to a white man and move to the rear of the vehicle.89 The year-long—and, ultimately, successful—boycott forged the SCLC, brought national attention to the struggle, and launched King to the forefront of a grassroots, nonviolent humanitarian protest movement that, within a decade, profoundly changed American life.

Racial violence in the South, which amounted to domestic terrorism against African Americans, 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 cruelty and 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.90 In August 1955, a particularly gruesome killing galvanized activists and shocked a largely complacent nation. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy 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,” wrote Diggs’s biographer.91 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.”92

Diggs, who earlier had pushed the Justice Department to probe the defrauding of black Mississippi voters, proposed to unseat the Members of the Mississippi delegation to the House on the grounds that only a fraction of the state’s voters had elected them.93 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.94

Adam Clayton Powell/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powell_supporting_eisenhower_nps_72-1926.xml Image courtesy of National Park Service, provided by Dwight David Eisenhower Presidential Library On October 11, 1956, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. announced to reporters his decision to support incumbent Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Known as a political maverick, Powell had backed Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952, but broke with Stevenson in 1956 because of his ambivalent position on civil rights. Powell noted Eisenhower’s “great contribution in the civil rights field.”
Adam Clayton Powell, dubbed “Mr. Civil Rights,” garnered national headlines during the 1940s and 1950s for his “Powell Amendment,” a rider prohibiting federal funds for institutions that promoted or endorsed segregation. Powell attached his amendment to a variety of legislation, beginning with a school lunch program bill that passed the House on June 4, 1946. “From then on I was to use this important weapon with success,” Powell recalled, “to bring about opportunities for the good of man and to stop those efforts that would harm democracy’s progress forward.” Beginning in 1955, Powell vowed to attach his rider to every education bill, starting with appropriations for school construction.95 His actions riled southern segregationists and stirred unease among otherwise liberal allies concerned that the amendment jeopardized social legislation.

Southern defiance, on display on Capitol Hill, crystallized in a bold proclamation conceived by Senators Russell, Thurmond, 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 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. Representatives Powell and Diggs argued passionately on the House Floor for a strong bill. Powell particularly aimed at southern amendments that preserved trials by local juries. Since southern states prevented black citizens from serving on juries, white defendants accused of crimes against blacks were often easily acquitted. “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.”96

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.97 On August 29, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1957 by a vote of 60 to 15.98

Lunch Counter Protest/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lunch_counter_LC-DIG-ppmsca-08108.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress African-American demonstrators occupy a lunch counter after being refused service in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960. Sit-ins like this one proved to be an effective non-violent protest against segregation in the South. Participants in the sit-ins, however, were often assaulted and harassed by white counter-protestors.
The resulting law, signed by President Eisenhower in early September 1957, was the first major civil rights measure passed since 1875. The act established a two-year U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) and created a civil rights division in the Justice Department, but its powers to enforce voting laws and punish the disfranchisement of black voters were feeble, as the commission noted in 1959. A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1960—again significantly weakened by southern opponents—extended the life of the CCR and stipulated that voting and registration records in federal elections must be preserved.99 Southerners, however, managed to cut a far-reaching provision to send registrars into southern states to oversee voter enrollment.

Though southern Members remained powerful, 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 Rayburn believed would break Smith’s stranglehold over civil rights 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.”100 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 segregationists and pass sweeping civil rights laws.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Lincoln Memorial/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lincoln_statue_overlooking_march_LC-DIG-ppmsca-08109.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress As the finale to the massive August 28, 1963, March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This photograph shows the view from over the shoulder of the Abraham Lincoln statue to the marchers gathered along the length of the Reflecting Pool.
As it did throughout the Second Reconstruction, pressure for change came from off Capitol Hill. By 1963 the need for a major civil rights bill weighed heavily on Congress and the John F. Kennedy administration. Protests at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 were followed in 1961 by attempts to desegregate interstate buses by the Freedom Riders, who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a large protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that ended brutally. Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor unleashed police dogs and high-powered hoses on the peaceful protesters. The images coming out of the Deep South horrified Americans from all walks of life. In August 1963, King and other civil rights leaders organized (what had been to that point) the largest-ever demonstration in the capital: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the world-renowned leader of a nonviolent movement that rivaled that of his model, Mahatma Gandhi, delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

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 in schools, vocational education facilities, 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?”101 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.

In the House, a bipartisan bill supported by Judiciary Chairman Celler and Republican William McCulloch of Ohio worked its way to passage. McCulloch and Celler forged a coalition of moderate Republicans and northern Democrats while deflecting southern amendments determined to cripple the bill. Standing in the well of the House defending his controversial amendment and the larger civil rights bill, Representative Powell described the legislation as “a great moral issue. . . . I think we all realize that what we are doing [today] is a part of an act of God.”102 On February 10, 1964, the House, voting 290 to 130, approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964; 138 Republicans helped pass the bill. In scope and effect, the act was among the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in U.S. history. It contained sections prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations (Title II); in state and municipal facilities, including schools (Titles III and IV); and—incorporating the Powell Amendment—in any program receiving federal aid (Title V). The act also prohibited discrimination in hiring and employment, creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate workplace discrimination (Title VII).103

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 noted that Humphrey’s assignment amounted to an “audition for the role of Johnson’s running mate in the fall presidential election.”104 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.105 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 into law on July 2, 1964.106

Voting Rights Act of 1965

Voting Rights Act Signing Ceremony/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_voting_rights_act_1965_LBJ_podium_lbj_library_18182.xml Photograph by Frank Wolfe; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The legislation suspended the use of literacy tests and voter disqualification devices for five years, authorized the use of federal examiners to supervise voter registration in states that used tests or in which less than half the voting-eligible residents registered or voted, directed the U.S. Attorney General to institute proceedings against use of poll taxes, and provided criminal penalties for violations of the act.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dealt the deathblow to southern congressional opposition. Momentum for tougher voting rights legislation—expanding on the provisions of Section I of the 1964 act—built rapidly because of continued civil rights protests in the South and because of President Johnson’s own continued determination. On March 7, 1965, marchers led by future Representative John R. Lewis of Georgia, were savagely beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Many of the protestors were kneeling in prayer when state troopers clubbed and gassed them on what would later be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Television cameras captured the onslaught and beamed images into the homes of millions of Americans. As with the brutality in Birmingham, public reaction was swift and, if possible, even more powerful. “The images were stunning—scene after scene of policemen on foot and horseback beating defenseless American citizens,” Lewis wrote years later. “This was a face-off in the most vivid terms between a dignified, composed, completely nonviolent multitude of silent protestors and the truly malevolent force of a heavily armed, hateful battalion of troopers. The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before.”107

After President Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress to speak about the events in Selma, legislative action was swift. The bill that quickly moved through both chambers suspended the use of literacy tests for a five-year period and stationed federal poll watchers and voting registrars in states with persistent patterns of voting discrimination. It also required the Justice Department to approve any change to election law in those states. 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. Conyers, along with Representatives Diggs, Hawkins, and Powell, had visited Selma in February 1965 as part of a 15-Member congressional delegation that investigated voting discrimination.108 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.”109 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 into law on August 6, 1965.110

Bloody Sunday Protest/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_trooper_beating_lewis_lcusz62_127732.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Baton-wielding Alabama state troopers waded into a crowd of peaceful civil rights demonstrators led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis (on ground left center, in light coat) on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. Images of the violent event, later known as “Bloody Sunday,” shocked millions of Americans from all walks of life and built momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The measure dramatically increased voter registration in the short term. By 1969, 60 percent of all southern blacks were registered. Predictably, the bill had the biggest effect in the Deep South. In Mississippi, for instance, where less than 7 percent of African Americans qualified to vote in 1964, 59 percent were on voter rolls by 1968.111 By 1975 approximately 1.5 million African Americans had registered to vote in the South.112

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 cities, too, the growing influence of black voters reshaped Congress. African Americans 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 white residents left the cities in droves for the suburbs.113 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.114 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 final major piece of civil rights legislation of the decade was designed to extend the legal protections outlawing racial discrimination beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1966 President Johnson called for additional legislation to protect the safety of civil rights workers, end discrimination in jury selection, and eliminate restrictions on the sale or rental of housing. Over the next two years, opposition to this legislation emerged from both parties, leading to a protracted battle that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.115

Finding legislative solutions to racial discrimination was an important component of President Johnson’s Great Society, which initiated new roles for the federal government in protecting the civil and political rights of individuals and promoting social and economic justice. Benefitting from Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Johnson administration instituted immigration reforms and created federally funded programs to stimulate urban development, bolster consumer protection, strengthen environmental regulations, fund education programs, and expand the social safety net by providing health coverage through Medicare and Medicaid.116 President Johnson made the case that fulfilling the promise of his Great Society agenda required additional action to strengthen individual rights, including the prohibition of discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

President Johnson Signing the Civil Rights Act/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_lbj_sign_cra_1968_brooks_lbj_library.xml Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11, 1968. The act prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of approximately 80 percent of the housing in the U.S. Newly elected Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (fourth from left) attended the signing.
House Democrats accepted the President’s request and worked to draft a bill that included civil rights protections and ended discriminatory housing practices.117 While a weakened version of this bill was passed in the House during the 89th Congress (1965–1967), the Senate failed to act on it before the session ended. At the start of the 90th Congress (1967–1969), President Johnson once again called for a new civil rights bill. This time, the Democratic strategy was to propose several bills based on the component parts of the failed bill from the 89th Congress. In so doing, Democrats hoped to pass as many of the individual bills as possible.118

During the tumultuous summer of 1967, access to housing was at the forefront of a national discussion on urban policy, particularly after violence erupted in cities such as Detroit and Newark, New Jersey. House Democrats were unable to attract support for a fair housing bill in the summer of 1967. But the House did pass a narrow civil rights bill on August 15, 1967, which established federal penalties for anyone forcibly interfering with the civil and political rights of individuals. The bill specified that civil rights workers would be afforded similar protections when serving as advocates for those trying to exercise their rights.119

Opponents attacked the administration’s civil rights bill as an unconstitutional intervention in a matter best addressed by the states. Many justified their resistance to the proposed legislation by highlighting the riots that broke out in July 1967.120 Representative Conyers rejected this argument. Instead, he said, this bill is “about the problem of protecting Americans, both black and white, North and South, who are caught up in an attempt to exercise civil rights that are guaranteed them under existing laws of this country.”121

In the Senate, Republicans joined segregationist Democrats in what seemed to be formidable opposition to the bill. When the upper chamber finally began to debate the legislation in February 1968, Senator Brooke joined with Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota to draft an amendment designed to prohibit discrimination in the sale or rental of 91 percent of all housing in the nation. On the Senate Floor, Brooke described the way segregated neighborhoods, typically far from employment opportunities, did extensive damage to the African-American community.122 This placed an additional financial burden on black families, he noted, as they often paid similar prices as those in white neighborhoods without similar investments in the quality of housing, social services, and schools. Brooke added that he could “testify from personal experience, having lived in the ghetto,” that these limitations have a significant “psychological impact” on the majority of African Americans searching for a home.123 “In the hierarchy of American values there can be no higher standard than equal justice for each individual,” Brooke declared. “By that standard, who could question the right of every American to compete on equal terms for adequate housing for his family?”124

As with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois was the bellwether for Republican support. When he declared that he was open to supporting the fair housing amendment with some revisions, negotiations began between the parties. The final bill included several concessions to Dirksen, such as reducing the housing covered by the fair housing provision. Also, an amendment was added to the bill to attract the support of Senators who had been reluctant to vote for the civil rights bill, which made it a federal crime to cross state lines to participate in a riot. An additional amendment prohibited Native American tribal governments from restricting the exercise of specific constitutional rights on their lands.125 The compromise bill passed the Senate and returned to the House on March 11, 1968.

The chairman of the House Rules Committee, William Colmer of Mississippi, was the final obstacle to the bill’s passage. For decades, opponents on the Rules Committee blocked civil rights initiatives, and Colmer sought to keep the Senate bill off the floor by sending it to a conference committee, where it could be debated and revised, or simply stalled, by Members. On April 4—the day before the Rules Committee was scheduled to vote on whether to send the bill to the House Floor or to send it to conference—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was campaigning in support of striking sanitation workers. The Rules Committee postponed its vote. A violent weekend in cities across the nation resulted in 46 people killed, thousands injured, and millions of dollars in property damage before the National Guard helped quelled the disturbances.126 Washington, DC, suffered extensive damage and federal troops patrolled the Capitol when the Rules Committee met the following week. Unexpectedly, a majority of the committee defied the chairman and voted to send the bill to the floor.127

In the heated House debate that followed, opponents made passage of the bill a referendum on the weekend of violence in the nation’s cities. Representative Joseph D. Waggonner of Louisiana warned that the House was being “blackmailed” by the rioters—forcing Members to pass the bill under threat of violence.128 Representative John Ashbrook of Ohio objected on constitutional grounds, emphasizing that the sale or rental of housing regulation was a concern for the states and local municipalities.129 Supporters, however, praised the bill as a necessary reform that would extend equal rights to a significant segment of American society, and many spoke of the need to vote for the bill in response to the tragic murder of Dr. King.130

Less than a week later, the House approved the Senate bill by a vote of 250 to 172, and President Johnson signed it into law on April 11, 1968.131 The measure extended federal penalties for civil rights infractions, protected civil rights workers, and outlawed discrimination by race, creed, national origin, or sex in the sale and rental of roughly 80 percent of U.S. housing by 1970. The enforcement mechanisms of the fair housing provision, however, ended up being somewhat limited in that it required private individuals or advocacy groups to file suit against housing discrimination.132

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76The literature on the civil rights movement is vast, accessible, and well documented. Standard treatments include Taylor Branch’s three-volume history, which uses Martin Luther King, Jr., as a lens through which to view the movement: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998); At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006). See also David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986); William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), an account of one of the protest movement’s seminal moments. For an overview of the movement and its impact on late-20th-century black America see Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945–2006, 3rd edition (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). For the evolution of civil rights legislation in Congress, see Robert Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954–1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007)—an abridged version of Mann’s The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996); Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960–1972 (New York: Oxford, 1990): especially pages 125–176; and James L. Sundquist, Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1968): 221–286. A useful overview of Congress and civil rights is Timothy N. Thurber, “Second Reconstruction,” in The American Congress: The Building of Democracy, ed. by Julian E. Zelizer (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2004): 529–547. Another useful secondary work, which touches on aspects of the voting rights reform legislative effort, is Steven F. Lawson’s Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).

77Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote: 47–49. For Truman and civil rights, see Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Donald R. McCoy, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984): 106–109, 167–171.Harry S. Truman, “Executive Order 9981—Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services,” 26 July 1948, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard, (accessed 30 November 2018).

78For more on the Dixiecrats, see Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001): see especially pages 67–117.

79In recent years, as part of a revisionist trend that has evaluated Eisenhower in a more favorable light, David Nichols published A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007)—a book that argues Eisenhower was an activist president on civil rights behind the scenes. A more balanced interpretation is William I. Hitchcock’s The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018): 211–243. For an earlier, critical analysis of Eisenhower and his position on civil rights, see Chester Pach Jr. and Elmo Richardson, The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, revised edition (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991): 137–157.

80Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).

81Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

82Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962); Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963); Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964); Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964).

83See Michael J. Klarman, “Court, Congress, and Civil Rights,” in Congress and the Constitution, Neal Devins and Keith E. Whittington, eds. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005): 173–197.

84The congressional committees system was consolidated after passage of the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act.

85In part, Powell’s frequent absences fit the maverick image he cultivated. Nevertheless, his failure to cast a vote for the final conference report for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while on an extended European trip under the auspices of Congress raised eyebrows. Though not crucial to the final tally, Powell’s vote would have held deep symbolic importance. Moreover, the bill incorporated his long-time amendment banning federal funds to institutions that practiced segregation. It exposed the New York Representative to greater press scrutiny. See Drew Pearson, “Powell Absent for Rights Vote,” 4 September 1964, Los Angeles Times: A6. Powell was present and voted for the original version of the bill, which passed the House on 10 February 1964. See Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 February 1964): 2804.

86Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 529–547. For a full-length biography of Chairman Smith, see Bruce J. Dierenfeild, Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987): Allen quotation on page 158. This quotation is often attributed to Speaker Sam Rayburn; see Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 531.

87For more on Russell’s position on race, see Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 22–24.

88Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 531. For a perceptive summary of Eastland’s career, see David Broder, “Eastland: End of an Era,” 26 March 1978, Washington Post: C7.

89For more on the Congressional Gold Medals awarded to Parks and other civil rights pioneers, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, as well as the Little Rock Nine, visit “Congressional Gold Medal Recipients.”

90“Reported Victims of Lynching, by Race: 1882–1964,” Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume 5: Governance and International Relations, Carter et al., eds.(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 251. For a more updated report on lynching in America, see Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” 3rd ed., accessed 6 November 2018,

91DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: 46–60, quotation on page 46. For press coverage, see Mattie Smith Colin, “Till’s Mom, Diggs Both Disappointed,” 1 October 1955, Chicago Defender: 1.

92DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: 50.

93Drew Pearson, “5 House Members,” 12 January 1956, Washington Post: 31; Ethel L. Payne, “U.S. Probes Mississippi Vote Bias,” 27 August 1955, Chicago Defender: 1.

94“NAACP Criticizes Rep. Dawson,” 1 September 1956, Washington Post: 38. For more on the Till lynching, see Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

95Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (New York: Dial Press, 1971): 81, 120–121.

96Congressional Record, House, 85th Cong., 1st sess. (14 June 1957): 9192–9193; for Diggs’s comments, see Congressional Record, House, 85th Cong., 1st sess. (10 June 1957): 8704–8705.

97It was during the debate that Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina held the floor for more than 24 hours in a personal filibuster against the bill. Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 40–60. For more on the act, as well as its legal and social legacy, see Gilbert Paul Carrasco, “Civil Rights Act of 1957,” in Major Acts of Congress, Volume 1, Brian K. Landsberg, ed. (New York: Thompson-Gale, 2004): 104–109. For more on Johnson’s role in brokering the 1957 act, consult Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York: Knopf, 2002).

98Civil Rights Act of 1957, Public Law 85–315, 71 Stat. 634 (1957).

99Civil Rights Act of 1960, Public Law 86–449, 74 Stat. 86 (1960).

100Julian E. Zelizer, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press): 56–60.

101Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (9 May 1963): 8256.

102Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 February 1964): 2465.

103For more on the congressional story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Delivering on a Dream: The House and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” For a concise overview of the bill and its legal and social significance, see Melanie B. Abbott, “Civil Rights Act of 1964,” in Major Acts of Congress, vol. 1: 109–115. See also Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014); Todd S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014).

104Mann, When Freedom Would Triumph: 175.

105Ibid., 187–199.

106Civil Rights Act of 1964, Public Law 88–352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964).

107John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998): 331; for the full account, see pages 323–332.

108John D. Morris, “Johnson Pledges Alabama Action,” 5 February 1965, New York Times: 17.

109Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (9 February 1965): 2434–2435. Like other African-American colleagues, Conyers stressed the foreign policy implications of voting fraud: “We are weak before our enemies if our goals abroad are so shamelessly ignored and subverted here at home.” See Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (8 July 1965): 16000.

110Voting Rights Act, Public Law 89–110, 79 Stat. 437 (1965). For more on the story of voting rights legislation in the House, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “The House and Selma: Bridging History and Memory.” The Office of the Historian also produced a documentary based on oral history interviews with Representative John Lewis and others. See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Documentary: Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” For an overview and analysis of the legal and social effects of the act, see William D. Araiza, “Voting Rights Act of 1965,” in Major Acts of Congress, vol. 3: 271–278.

111Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 543.

112Not only were more African Americans registered to vote, but also more ran for and won state and local political office. In 1965, in the 11 original Confederate states, there were just 72 black elected officials. A decade later, 1,587 held office. From 1966 to 1967, the number of black lawmakers serving in state legislatures essentially doubled to 152. The effect was most dramatic in states that were once the strongholds of segregation: in Georgia, African Americans went from 0 to 11 seats in the state legislature in one election cycle. See Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (2 June 1975): 16241; John Allan Long, “Negroes Widen Political Power,” 4 November 1967, Christian Science Monitor: 9.

113For an example of this phenomenon, see Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

114See, for example, Fred L. Zimmerman, “Negroes in Congress: Black House Members Will Add to Their Ranks in the Next Few Years,” 22 October 1968, Wall Street Journal: 1.

115“Message from the President of the United States Proposing Enactment of Legislation to Make Authority Against Civil Rights Violence Clear and Sure,” 89th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Doc. 432 (2 May 1966); Civil Rights Act of 1968, Public Law 90–284, 82 Stat. 73 (1968).

116For more on the origins and history of the Great Society, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 524–592; Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

117Civil Rights Act of 1966, H.R. 14765, 89th Cong. (1966).

118“Congress Enacts Open Housing Legislation,” CQ Almanac, 1968, 24th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1969): 152–169,


120Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 August 1967): 22674–22690.

121Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 August 1967): 22690.

122Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 February 1968): 2282.

123Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 February 1968): 2281.

124Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 February 1968): 2279.

125”Congress Enacts Open Housing Legislation,” CQ Almanac, 1968.

126Julian E. Zelizer, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (New York: Penguin Press, 2015): 296.

127Marjorie Hunter, “Rules Panel Clears Rights Bill for Vote in the House Today,” 10 April 1968, New York Times: 1.

128Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 April 1968): 9557.

129Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 April 1968): 9587.

130Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 April 1968): 9537– 9538.

131Civil Rights Act of 1968, Public Law 90–284, 82 Stat. 73 (1968).

132Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008): 423.