Documents: American Civil Rights Movement


The first sentence of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment added to the U. S. Constitution in 1868 provides that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This granted African Americans U. S. citizenship. However, Native Americans (American Indians) on their tribal reservations were thought to be excluded. It would be over one-half a century until passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 before a large number of Native Americans would be granted U. S. citizenship. Prior to passage of the 1924 law, earlier laws such as the Dawes Act of 1887 had granted land to Native Americans under the belief that if they were landowners, they would pay taxes on the land and thus become productive members of society. In the 20th century, this idea that land ownership was directly tied to the grant of citizenship would be abandoned in favor of a more direct path to citizenship for Native Americans. Before 1924, some Native Americans were already citizens of their states by virtue of state government action. In addition, some had already acquired U. S. citizenship by marrying white men or through military service or special treaties or statutes. However when the American Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, it is estimated almost one-third of Native Americans in the U. S. were not considered citizens. President Calvin Coolidge signed the act into law. The law’s supporters acknowledged that it was passed partially in recognition of the service of thousands of Native Americans in World War I. The caption of the law read: “That all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided that the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.” The law did not include those Native Americans born before the law’s effective date nor did it include those born outside the U. S. It was not until later years that all those Native Americans born on U. S. soil were declared to be citizens. Some Native Americans given citizenship by the law did not acquire full citizenship rights until later because some states, which still controlled voting rights to a large extent, denied them voting rights. It is important to note that the Native Americans granted citizenship by the law did not surrender their tribal citizenship. Such dual citizenship for Native Americans was allowed. Native Americans themselves did not do much lobbying for the law. Rather, the law was largely shaped by Anglo individuals and groups. Some of the law’s supporters did so because of the “guardianship” status they felt the U. S. government should take to protect Native Americans whom they believed were being taken advantage of by non-indigenous Americans who wanted Native American land. They argued that the U. S. had an obligation to supervise and protect Native Americans. Some Native Americans who opposed the 1924 law were concerned about tribal sovereignty and citizenship, and simply did not trust the U. S. government. They argued that “U. S. citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. How could these Europeans come over and tell us we were citizens in our own country? We had our own citizenship.” By its {the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924} provisions all Indians were automatically made U. S. citizens whether they wanted to be or not. Native Americans felt this was a violation of their sovereignty.
In 1954 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that racial segregation by law in public schools violated the equal protection of the law clause of the U. S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Public schools were thus under court order to admit African American students to formerly all-white public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas at the time, opposed racial integration of the state’s public schools and called out the state’s National Guard to prevent nine African American students from entering Little Rock Central High School.

In his capacity as Commander in Chief, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730 in September,1957, bringing the Arkansas National Guard under federal control to assist in the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School. At the same time, Eisenhower also directed U. S. Army troops from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, to go to Little Rock to protect the young African Americans and guarantee that court orders would be executed.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law in September of that year, it was the first federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. President Truman laid the foundation for this law when he established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 – a response to growing pressure from the African American community following World War II. Newly returned African American veterans were demanding the most basic of rights – the right to vote – that was being denied them in southern states. The Committee’s assignment was to assess whether government at all levels in the U. S. was adequately safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans and to recommend remedial measures to correct any problems detected. In 1947, the Committee issued a report to the President with the title, To Secure These Rights. The Committee concluded that African Americans were not the only minorities being denied civil rights in the U. S. and made several recommendations: (1) the creation of a permanent Commission on Civil Rights in the executive branch; (2) the creation of a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice headed by an Assistant Attorney General; and (3) the creation of a congressional Joint Standing Committee on Civil Rights. Because of roadblocks it took ten years to secure these modest recommendations with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Truman proposed legislation to abolish the poll tax, protect the right to vote for all citizens in federal elections, desegregate the armed forces, withhold federal funds from those who discriminate, outlaw discrimination in interstate transportation, make lynching a federal criminal offense, and eliminate segregation in the nation’s capital. He also recommended creation of a Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Fair Employment Practices Commission, but Congress did not pass any of Truman’s proposals. Not to be completely outdone by Congress’ inaction, Truman accomplished some of the Committee’s recommendations through Executive Orders: (1) in 1948, an Executive Order desegregating the armed forces; and (2) in 1951, an Executive Order creating a Committee on Government Contract Compliance to make certain that those entering into contracts with the U. S. government comply with nondiscrimination requirements. Most observers at the time did not expect the election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower as President in 1952 to result in vigorous engagement in civil rights issues. However, events in the nation as a whole soon left the President, and eventually Congress, no choice but to engage themselves with civil rights issues. One such event was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) gradually chipping away at racial segregation in higher education through victories before the Supreme Court in cases such as Sweatt v Painter. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the famous case, Brown v Board of Education. Rosa Parks and the Alabama Bus Boycott in 1955 was still another crucial event in the growing civil rights movement. In 1956, in his State of the Union message, Eisenhower asked Congress to create a Civil Rights Commission to investigate charges that African Americans were being denied the right to vote. Later that year, he submitted proposed legislation to implement several recommendations made by Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. Eisenhower’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. After he was re-elected in 1956, he resubmitted his proposals to Congress. Just as Congress was considering what became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance of nine young African Americans into Little Rock Central High School. Eisenhower sent U. S. Army troops to Little Rock to enforce the law. The House of Representatives passed Eisenhower’s proposed legislation, but in the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina spoke non-stop for over 24 hours in a filibuster to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act. His effort finally failed, and the legislation passed with most southern senators voting “No.” At the time the Civil Rights Act of 1957 did not in reality do all that much in ending racial discrimination in the nation other than creating a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail in April, 1963 after he was arrested for participating in a civil rights march. It was an open letter meant to be read by all but was written to specifically address eight clergymen who had opposed his protests against racial segregation and his views on civil rights. King defended his exercise of First Amendment freedoms and explained what motivated his actions.

He wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He explained his struggle for natural rights, including those protected by the U. S. Constitution: “[W]e have not made a single gain [in] civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights.”

Finally, he urged nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of securing justice. He wrote: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

King’s letter was published in newspapers across the country and helped to gain broader support for the civil rights movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in August,1963, when a quarter of a million people exercised their constitutional right of peaceable assembly to protest racial segregation and discrimination. King discussed the liberty and equality guaranteed in the Founding documents of the U. S. and how America was committed to the principle of extending those promises to all Americans, including African Americans. He said he and his fellow Americans stood in the “symbolic shadow” of Abraham Lincoln and referenced the Emancipation Proclamation, issued a century earlier, and its promise of freedom for slaves. “But,” he noted, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He continued: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” But, he pointed out, the country had defaulted on the promissory note, and freedom and equality were not yet a reality. Again referencing the Declaration of Independence, King proclaimed: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
In the early 1960s, several important events involving civil rights, and particularly racial discrimination, persuaded many citizens and political leaders that the time had come to act. In June,1963, President John F. Kennedy sent Congress a major civil rights bill, the heart of which was a proposal to forbid racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants and end employer discrimination. In August,1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and over 200,000 others participated in the March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the fall of 1963, two events occurred which finally led to the passage of civil rights legislation. First, a bomb exploded in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls. Later in November in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas became President. Two days after Kennedy’s burial, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in which he said that the greatest way to honor Kennedy’s memory would be to pass what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the U. S. Senate, the key to the success of the legislation was the Republican Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, and some other moderate Republicans, since it was known that many Democratic senators from the South would oppose the legislation. Congress based its constitutional authority to pass the law not on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection of the laws clause but rather on the power given Congress by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has several major provisions: (1) a ban on discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, etc.; (2) a declaration that any government agency receiving federal funds could lose those funds if engaged in unlawful discrimination; and (3) a declaration making it unlawful for employers, employment agencies, labor unions, or training programs to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in hiring, discharging, or conditions of employment.

When the law’s constitutionality was challenged before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1964 in Heart of Atlanta Motel v U. S. and Katzenbach v McClung, the Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality. As one historian has written, “it remains the broadest, most effective, and most important civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction.”

By the early 20th Century, denial of African Americans’ right to vote throughout the South was extensive and remained almost unchanged for the next sixty years. In December, 1964, returning from Europe after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr. met with President Lyndon Johnson and urged him to propose a voting rights bill to Congress. In early 1965, Johnson met several times with King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. In March, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” occurred in Selma, Alabama. To the horror of Americans watching on television, civil rights marchers were brutally attacked by Alabama law enforcement officers. On March 15, 1965, Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress to propose a voting rights bill. Johnson began his address with these words: “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” He continued: “It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.” Finally, he concluded: “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Using the enforcement clause of the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment, both chambers of Congress passed the Voting Rights Act by overwhelming votes, and Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965. Among the law’s major provisions are the following: (1) prohibits nationwide denial of the right to vote based on literacy tests; (2) certain state and local areas where less than 50% of eligible voters had voted in 1964 came under federal supervision and could only escape from such by demonstrating to the U. S. Attorney General that the area had not used any test or device that interfered with voting in the past five years; (3) state or local governments covered by the law considering any change in their voting or election procedures had to submit the proposed change for “pre-clearance” by the U. S. Department of Justice or the U. S. District Court in the District of Columbia; and (4) the U. S. Attorney General could send poll watchers and federal examiners to any of the covered areas to register voters and supervise elections. In 1966, in South Carolina v Katzenbach, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Congress reauthorized and extended the legislation several times in later years, including extending it to “language minorities” and requiring bilingual ballots. The law resulted in dramatic increases in the number of African American voters. However, the usefulness of the law has been called into question by a 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v Holder where the Court declared the “coverage formula” of the law unconstitutional.