History Lesson

The Case for Watered-Down Legislation

What health care reform advocates can learn from the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

See a Magnum Photos gallery of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

To those who argue that piecemeal health care reform is worse than no health care reform, I have five words: the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Many of you are no doubt scratching your heads (“There was a 1957 Civil Rights Act?”), and for good reason. This is one of the most thoroughly forgotten pieces of social legislation in U.S. history, in part because it was watered down to nearly nothing—or so it seemed.

But had the bill not been watered down, it would not have passed the Senate. (As is, it passed with 60 votes, which by Senate rules today would be seen as a squeaker.) And if it hadn’t passed, the civil rights movements and the more monumental laws of the next few years may have come about much more slowly.

The heart of the bill, in its original form, was a section that outlawed segregation in all aspects of American life—housing, schools, voting booths, public places such as restaurants and theaters—and imposed criminal penalties on violators. Yet it was precisely this section that Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson agreed to eliminate in his effort to push the bill through. Prominent civil rights activists, in and out of Congress, were outraged. Many of them argued that it would be better to kill the bill and start over with a new one. (Sound familiar?)

In the end, though, they came around, reasoning that at least this would be the first time the Senate had passed a civil rights bill since the Civil War and that the bill did accomplish a few things, meager though they were compared with the initial goals. They decided, in short, that it was better than nothing.

Robert Caro contends in Master of the Senate, the third volume of his LBJ biography, that the ‘57 law served as the precedent and prelude to the landmark legislation—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—that Johnson would later push and sign as president. Caro is one of the few historians to highlight this connection. Even so, despite devoting nearly 200 pages of his book to a gripping, detailed description of how Johnson maneuvered the 1957 bill into law, he understates—in fact, misses—the impact that the law had just months after its passage.

The ‘57 law’s main accomplishment—which, oddly, Caro doesn’t even mention—was the creation of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel empowered to investigate charges of racial discrimination in housing, education, and voting registration. (For more about the law, click here.)

The first sworn complaint to the commission arrived on Aug. 14, 1958, alleging, as the official docket put it, “that through threats of bodily harm and losing of jobs, and other means, Negro residents of Gadsden County, Florida, are being deprived of their right to vote.”

The commission dispatched agents to Florida to look into the charges and to hold public hearings. Encouraged by this development, more black Americans came forward, filed complaints, and told their stories. Over the next 12 months, the commission received petitions about the denial of voting rights from 29 counties in eight states, and it held hearings in all of them.

Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field officer, had already been traveling across the state on his own, gathering evidence of voting-rights violations. The commission provided an official public forum for the testimony of the victims he’d found.

Encouraged by this development, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, led by Martin Luther King Jr., launched a Crusade for Citizenship Campaign, shifting tactics from nonviolent protest—such as the boycott that had desegregated the public buses of Montgomery, Ala.—to voter-registration drives. King’s staff secretary, Ella Baker, organized this campaign, holding meetings in more than 20 cities across the South, using the commission as an instrument to mobilize black citizens, first as witnesses, then as activists.

On Sept. 9, 1959, the commission released its first report, a 668-page tome, based on a year of field reports and inquests, concluding that the nation’s treatment of its 18 million black citizens was “an affront to human dignity” and a violation of “American principles and historic purposes.”

Coming five years after Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered public schools to be desegregated with “deliberate speed,” the report came as a shock to many white Americans, who—precisely because of segregation—were unaware of this dark side of their nation’s life. And for many black Americans, the confirmation of their everyday perceptions helped galvanize them to further action. (The first sit-in, at a segregated diner in Greensboro, N.C., took place five months later.)

There were also many white people, especially in the South, who regarded the report as an affront. The six-member commission’s three Southern members issued a dissent, objecting to the report’s claim that the Constitution guaranteed equal protection under the law. (The 14th Amendment may have done that, they noted, but not the Framers’ original document.)

When the commission came up for its two-year renewal on Sept. 14, five days after the release of the report, the Senate’s two most outspoken segregationists, James Eastland of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, railed in opposition. (During the debate on the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Thurmond had mounted a filibuster lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes, still the longest on record.)

In a colloquy on the floor, reported in the next day’s New York Times, Eastland asked, “Isn’t a segregated life the proper life? Isn’t it the law of nature?” Thurmond answered, “That’s the way God made the races.”

When Sen. Jacob Javits of New York advocated that the commission be allowed to continue its work, Eastland objected. In the South, there were no “gangs roaming the streets, juvenile delinquency, knifings, cuttings, rape, murder filth,” like Javits had in New York City, he said. Yet Southern senators weren’t making a fuss about his problems. Added Thurmond: “Let the poor South alone.”

The bill passed, and the commission’s life was extended, in part because Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was due to arrive in Washington the next day. Racism was America’s deepest scar in the Cold War competition, a scab that Moscow’s propagandists constantly and gleefully picked at. Even some Southern senators, acknowledged that America’s standing would be damaged if Congress were debating racial equality while the leader of world communism was in town.

In its report, the commission had called on the president to send federal registrars to precincts where county or state officials were preventing black Americans from registering to vote. This was one of the report’s main recommendations. Civil rights leaders made a big deal of it. But President Dwight Eisenhower openly rejected the idea, and Vice President Richard Nixon gave no sign that he felt otherwise. Nixon, of course, was the Republican nominee in the 1960 presidential election. His Democratic opponent, John F. Kennedy, didn’t say much about the idea, either. But when Martin Luther King was arrested and locked up in the Birmingham jail, at least Kennedy called King’s wife with words of support.

The contrast between Kennedy’s call and Eisenhower’s dismissal of the commission’s main proposal for action was widely reported. The election was of course very close. Robert Dallek, in his biography of JFK, argues that black support for Kennedy, especially in Northern cities such as Chicago, may well have supplied his margin of victory.

Sometimes the gates of history swing on small hinges, as the saying goes. The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a preposterously small hinge that helped swing open a very wide gate. It’s not out of the question that a pared-down health care bill might do the same.