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A Brief History of Civil Rights Legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had already been accomplished - 100 years earlier.

Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Most people are aware of the civil rights movement of the 1960's and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Most of us, however, don't realize that both had already happened - nearly 100 years earlier.

"Complete liberty and exact equality in the enjoyment of all civil, political and public rights should be established and effectually maintained throughout the Union by efficient and appropriate state and federal legislation. Neither the law nor its administration should admit any discrimination in respect of citizens by reason of African Americans, creed, color, or previous condition of servitude."

This quote, which sounds like it could be right out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was actually from the Republican Party platform in 1872. This, a big stepping stone in the fight for equal civil rights for blacks, was certainly not the first.

The first major civil rights law was actually passed in 1866, right after the conclusion of the Civil War and nearly 100 years before the C.R.A. of 1964. This truly landmark legislation stated that citizens of the United States, no matter their color, shall have the same right to “make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and person property, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws...for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

Civil Rights leaders meet with President Lyndon Johnson. Civil Rights leaders meet with President Lyndon Johnson. 

The voting record for this bill speaks to the level and type of support it had at the time. The bill sailed through the House 111-38 and found equal support in the Senate, passing 33-12. Not one of the Democrats at the time voted in favor of the bill.

After Republicans passed this civil rights legislation in Congress, it was sent to then President Andrew Johnson, who had assumed power after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. In less than two weeks after that veto, the Senate and the House voted to override Johnson's veto by votes of 33-15 and 122-41 respectively. The Republicans would not take no for an answer.

Then came the civil rights law of 1870 which declared and enforced that any citizen who was qualified to vote in the U.S. “shall be entitled and allowed to vote at all such elections, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

This bill backed up, in legislation, the 15th Amendment which had been ratified only months before. The punishment for refusing to allow someone to vote was harsh. The offender was forced to pay a $500 fine (remember this is 1870!) to the wronged party and could serve one month to one year in jail. This bill, like the one in 1866, was easily passed through the Senate and the House by votes of 43-8 and 131-43 showing huge and almost universal support among Republicans while getting none from the Democrats.

Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Photo Credit: Library of Congress. Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

The last of the major civil rights bills in that time came in 1875. This remarkable bill fulfilled that party platform three years earlier and prohibited the discrimination against blacks in nearly every imaginable circumstance:

"All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal and enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement…applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude."

What is amazing about this bill, along with the previous two, is that by 1875, full and equal civil rights for blacks had been passed and signed into law, solely by Republicans I might add. The achievements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which we all know, had already been realized 90 years earlier!

So what happened?

The first problem to arise was a Supreme Court decision in 1883 that declared the civil rights law of 1875 unconstitutional. The court declared, almost unanimously, that Congress lacked the authority to outlaw discrimination by private citizens and organizations, and that their authority only extended to federal, state and local governments. This decision opened the door for widespread discrimination and segregation for the next 70 years.

The discrimination of blacks and their gross mistreatment for the next several decades was the result of a free, yet immoral society whose moral conscience had not yet caught up with the rolling tide of civil rights laws that had been recently enacted. Those several decades, however, were not without a continued fight.

In 1922, the House passed one of many anti-lynching bills by a vote of 230-120, enjoying only eight Democrat votes in favor. The bill reached the Senate but was never taken up due to a filibuster by southern Democrats. A similar fate met the Costigan-Wagner Act in 1934-35 as well as numerous other anti-lynching laws brought up in Congress.

Photo Credit: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. Photo Credit: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

Finally, in 1957, after a long hiatus, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed and signed into law by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. This law was vitally important for voting rights and prohibited intimidating, coercing, or otherwise interfering with the rights of persons to vote. This landmark legislation, which mirrored the act passed in 1870, was voted through the Senate and the House by votes of 72-18 and 285-126 respectively.

The Democrat opposition in the Senate created the longest filibuster on record, stretching over 24 hours of non-stop speaking by Strom Thurmond. This bill also established the Commission on Civil Rights which was in large part responsible for the famous bill in 1964.

Before that famous legislation, however, there was yet another bill in 1960 that was passed to further strengthen voting rights for blacks. This bill, as is the case with every other that preceded it, enjoyed near unanimous support from Republicans.

Momentum for civil rights had never been stronger. The moral compass of the country, which had previously lagged greatly behind the legislation, was starting to catch up. The civil rights movement in the south had begun to change the attitudes of many in the nation as we saw blacks in the south targeted, abused, beaten and oppressed for merely wanting equal rights. This discord led to the passage of the 24th Amendment and the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Two things surprised me during the research of this piece. First, the modern civil rights bills passed between 1957–1965 were basically retreads of the bills passed nearly 100 years earlier. Most people can tell you at least something about the civil rights movement in the 1960′s, but very few know about that same movement in the 1860′s and the great successes that it had at that time. For some reason, this era of civil rights struggle and great achievements is rarely taught or explored and should be looked at more often.

The other thing that surprised me was that not only have Republicans never blocked a major civil rights bill, but not one single time have major civil rights bills enjoyed a higher support from Democrats than they did from Republicans, regardless of the era in which they were passed.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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