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 — , 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.
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Several factors hindered the few African Americans in Congress from leading efforts to pass the major civil rights acts of , , and Foremost, black Members of Congress were too scarce to form a voting bloc powerful enough to change how the institution worked. John Conyers joined the House in and Brooke entered the Senate in These new Members had limited influence. And Brooke helped secure the housing anti-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act of 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.
Her act of civil disobedience galvanized the U.
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.
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. 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. As in the House, influential southern Senators held key positions and, not surprisingly, were among the most skilled parliamentarians.
Richard B. Russell Jr. Vardaman or Theodore Bilbo. Between and , the Senate Judiciary Committee killed almost every single one of the more than civil rights measures the Senate considered during those 12 years. The episode riveted national attention on violence against blacks in the South. 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 mids; this was due in large measure to events outside the Capitol, particularly the Brown v.
The protest began after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a member of the NAACP who defied local ordinances in December by refusing to yield her seat on the bus to a white man and move to the rear of the vehicle.
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 African Americans are thought to have been lynched between and , but that figure likely underrepresents the actual number.
They had never seen a black member of Congress.
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Blacks came by the truckloads. Never before had a member of Congress put his life on the line protecting the constitutional rights of blacks. Known as a political maverick, Powell had backed Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in , but broke with Stevenson in because of his ambivalent position on civil rights. Powell attached his amendment to a variety of legislation, beginning with a school lunch program bill that passed the House on June 4, 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, 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.
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In the Senate, Paul H. 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 , was the first major civil rights measure passed since The act established a two-year U.
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 A year later, the Civil Rights Act of —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.
Though southern Members remained powerful, consequential internal congressional reforms promised to end obstructionism. 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. 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 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 were followed in by attempts to desegregate interstate buses by the Freedom Riders, who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. 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 , 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. A reluctant Kennedy administration began coordinating with congressional allies to pass a significant reform bill. McCulloch and Celler forged a coalition of moderate Republicans and northern Democrats while deflecting southern amendments determined to cripple the bill. I think we all realize that what we are doing [today] is a part of an act of God.
In scope and effect, the act was among the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in U.
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. 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. President Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 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.
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 dealt the deathblow to southern congressional opposition. On March 7, , marchers led by future Representative John R.
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As with the brutality in Birmingham, public reaction was swift and, if possible, even more powerful. The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before. 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. Conyers, along with Representatives Diggs, Hawkins, and Powell, had visited Selma in February as part of a Member congressional delegation that investigated voting discrimination. An amended conference report passed both chambers by wide margins, and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of into law on August 6, The measure dramatically increased voter registration in the short term.
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