Documents: American Civil Rights Movement
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.
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.
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.”
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.