It was forty years ago, today....
There's an important anniversary today. Kennedy's idea, and, later, Johnson's determined support, drove through The Civil Rights Act of 1964, building on the foundation created by a reluctant Eisenhower:
A Civil Right: "[A]n enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury."
Previous civil rights acts passed by the Federal government had been thrown out by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the Constitution didn't give Congress the authority to pass such legislation.
The most important expansion of civil rights in the United States was the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. See U.S. Const. amend. XIII. In response to the 13th Amendment, various states enacted "black codes" which were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly free slaves. In 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed to counter the "black codes" and ensure that no state "shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States . . . [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." See U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Congress was also given the power by section five of the Fourteenth Amendment to pass any laws needed for its enforcement.
Based on that last sentence, I'm not sure how previous Acts could have been unconstitutional, but variances in wording make a big difference, of course. I haven't researched the history of the failed attempts, but I was very interested to learn that the equal gender protection was added to the 1964 Act in an attempt to alienate Northern Senators who might be willing to press for equal rights for minorities but who could be expected to draw the line at letting women be equal.
A law that covered everyone. What a concept.
Little Rock was the catalyst for the 1957 bill.
The Little Rock High School incident of 1957 in Arkansas brought international attention to the civil rights cause. The Montgomery Bus Boycott may have been important but it hardly had media appeal. Here at Little Rock, you had a state fighting against federal authority, national guard troopers facing professional paratroopers and a governor against a president. As part of a media circus, it proved compulsive viewing - but what happened was shown throughout the western world and brought the civil rights issue into the living rooms of many people who may have been unaware of what was going on in the South.
Eisenhower had shown that he had little faith in measures to support the African American community in the South simply because he believed that a change of heart was required and that enforcement would not work - if anything, enforcement would make matters worse. In 1957 a civil rights bill was being pushed through Congress and Eisenhower made it clear that it did not have his support. This bill was very mild but the leader of the Senate majority, Lyndon Johnson (a future US president and from Texas) watered it down so that Southern senators would not ruin what was on paper. The bill was passed into law in 1957 with a 72 to14 vote. It barely changed anything but it was more a symbol of hope that the law could be used to change Southern society. It was, in fact, the first civil rights act to pass Congress since the Civil War.
(Little Rock, in pictures.)
I've decided to break this into two parts. I'm going to re-read the rest of it (and eat a donut) before I post it.